At a Glance
Why Get Tested?
To help diagnose and monitor treatment for a serotonin-secreting carcinoid tumour
When to Get Tested?
When you have symptoms suggestive of a carcinoid tumours such as flushing, diarrhoea, and/or wheezing and at intervals following treatment
The Test Sample
What is being tested?
This test measures the amount of 5-hydroxyindoleacetic acid (5-HIAA) in the urine. 5-HIAA is a muscle stimulant and the primary metabolite of serotonin, a chemical derived from the amino acid tryptophan. Serotonin is produced as needed by the nervous system, mainly the brain, but also special cells in the bronchial tubes (lungs) and gastrointestinal tract. It helps transmit nerve impulses and constrict blood vessels, participates in the wake-sleep cycle, and affects mood. After it has been used by the body, serotonin is broken down in the liver, and its metabolites, including 5-HIAA, are excreted in the urine.
Normally, only small amounts of 5-HIAA are present in the urine. Large quantities of serotonin and 5-HIAA may be produced however, by some carcinoid tumours. Carcinoid tumours are slow-growing masses that can form in the gastrointestinal tract, on the appendix and in the lungs. According to the UK Cancer Register the incidence of carcinoid tumours in the UK is approximately 1 per 100,000 each year. Many more of these tumours may exist, but most remain small and do not cause any symptoms. When carcinoid tumours are discovered in asymptomatic patients during surgical procedures performed for other reasons, they are called "incidental" tumours. A small percentage of these tumours may eventually grow large enough to cause obstructions in the intestines or bronchial tubes of the lungs.
About 10% of carcinoid tumours, primarily those found in the gastrointestinal tract, will produce enough serotonin to cause symptoms such as flushing of the face, diarrhoea, a rapid heart rate, and wheezing, usually only after the tumour has spread to the liver. These symptoms are referred to as the carcinoid syndrome. The serotonin that causes the carcinoid syndrome may be released continuously or intermittently and can lead to significantly increased quantities of 5-HIAA in the urine.
How is the sample collected for testing?
For the 24-hour urine collection, all urine should be saved for a 24-hour period. It is better to keep sample in a cool dark place. Wrapped in a black plastic bag. When complete the sample is taken as soon as possible to your GP or the laboratory for preservation. Pre-sample preparation is important for accurate 5-HIAA test results.
For more information, see Is there anything else I should know and talk to your doctor.
NOTE: If undergoing medical tests makes you or someone you care for anxious, embarrassed, or even difficult to manage, you might consider reading one or more of the following articles: Coping with Test Pain, Discomfort, and Anxiety, Tips on Blood Testing, Tips to Help Children through Their Medical Tests, and Tips to Help the Elderly through Their Medical Tests.
Another article, Follow That Sample, provides a glimpse at the collection and processing of a blood sample and throat culture.
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NOTE: This article is based on research that utilizes the sources cited here as well as the collective experience of the Lab Tests Online Editorial Review Board. This article is periodically reviewed by the Editorial Board and may be updated as a result of the review. Any new sources cited will be added to the list and distinguished from the original sources used.