HCG tests

■ 1st trimester

Human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG) is a protein hormone produced in the placenta of a pregnant woman. The test to determine whether you're pregnant detects the presence of HCG in your urine or blood. During the early weeks of pregnancy, HCG is important in the corpus luteum, which is the mass of cells that remains in the ovary after the egg's release from a mature follicle (the sac where the egg develops in your ovary). In a normal pregnancy, production of HCG increases steadily, doubling about every two or three days during the first 10 weeks. Levels then fall slowly during the remainder of the pregnancy.

The HCG test is routinely used to confirm pregnancy, either in a home test of urine or a blood or urine test at a clinic or lab. It takes six to 12 days after fertilization before HCG can be detected in urine.

Abnormal levels of HCG can indicate problems such as ectopic pregnancy, impending miscarriage or development of an abnormal mass of cells in the uterus after fertilization (molar pregnancy). In an ectopic pregnancy or one destined to end in miscarriage, the rate of increase of HCG is much slower than normal. If your health care provider suspects one of these problems, you may be given several blood HCG tests over a number of days to determine whether the hormone is increasing at a normal rate.

A higher-than-usual HCG level may indicate a multiple pregnancy or a molar pregnancy. HCG tests are also used to monitor women after a molar pregnancy, miscarriage or ectopic pregnancy to make sure the pregnancy tissue is gone.

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