Procalcitonin: Test Overview, Indication, Nursing Considerations by NJE


Procalcitonin: To assist in diagnosing bacterial infection and risk for developing sepsis.

PATIENT PREPARATION: There are no food, fluid, activity, or medication restrictions unless by medical direction. 

NORMAL FINDINGS: Method: Fluorescence immunoassay.

AgeConventional UnitsSI Units (Conventional 
Units × 1)
NewbornLess than 2 ng/mL Less than 2 mcg/L
18–20 hrLess than 20 ng/mLLess than 20 mcg/L
48 hrLess than 5 ng/mLLess than 5 mcg/L
3 d–adultLess than 0.1 ng/mLLess than 0.1 mcg/L 

Interpretive Guidelines of Procalcitonin

InterpretationConventional Units SI Units
Bacterial infection  absent or highly 
Less than 0.1 ng/mL Less than 0.1 mcg/L
Bacterial infection possible, low risk 
for development of sepsis
Less than 0.5 ng/mLLess than 0.5 mcg/L
Bacterial infection likely, development of sepsis 
is possible
0.5–2 ng/mL0.5–2 mcg/L
Bacterial infection highly likely, high risk 
for development of sepsis
2.1–9.9 ng/mL or greater 2.1–9.9 mcg/L or greater
Bacterial infection severe, septic shock is 
10 ng/mL or greater
10 mcg/L or greater 

The value of individual levels or absolute cutoffs varies between facilities; many have adopted multivariate criteria for the evaluation and management of sepsis that may or may not include procalcitonin measurements.


OVERVIEW: (Study type: Blood collected in a gold-, red-, red/gray-, lavender- [EDTA], or green- [lithium or sodium heparin] top tube; related body system: Immune system.) Procalcitonin, blood cultures, C-reactive protein (CRP), and lactate levels are all used as indicators of infection, inflammation—and sepsis markers. Normally, procalcitonin, the precursor of the hormone calcitonin, is produced by the C cells of the thyroid. In sepsis and septic shock, microbial toxins and inflammatory mediator proteins, including cytokines, tumor necrosis factor α, interleukin 1, prostaglandins, and platelet-activating factor, are thought to trigger the production of large amounts of procalcitonin (bacterial sources are believed to stimulate the production of procalcitonin to a greater degree than viral sources) by nonthyroidal, non-neuroendocrine cells throughout the body. Procalcitonin is detectable within 2 to 4 hr after a sepsis initiating event, peaks within 12 to 24 hr, and remains detectable for up to 7 days. Serial measurements are useful to monitor patients at risk of developing sepsis or to monitor response to therapy. Sepsis is a very serious, potentially life-threatening systemic inflammatory response to infection with a significantly high mortality rate. Sepsis involves a systemic inflammatory response to infectious organisms that suppresses the immune system, activates the coagulation process (reflected by prolonged prothrombin time and activated partial thromboplastin time, elevated d-dimer, and deficiency of protein C), and results in cardiovascular insufficiency, and multiple organ failure. The incidence of sepsis in hospitals is especially high in noncardiac intensive care units.

Another patient population with a high risk of developing sepsis includes neonates in cases of early- and late-onset. Early-onset neonatal sepsis is also a significant concern. It occurs in the first 72 hr of life with 85% of cases presenting in the first 24 hr. Early-onset neonatal sepsis is the result of colonization of the neonate from the mother as it moves through the birth canal before delivery. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends universal screening for group B Streptococcus for all pregnant women at 35 to 37 weeks gestation. Other organisms associated with early-onset neonatal sepsis include coagulase-negative Staphylococcus, Escherichia coli, Haemophilus influenza, and Listeria monocytogenes. 

Late-onset neonatal sepsis, during days 4 to 90, is acquired from the environment and has been associated with infection by Acinetobacter, Candida,coagulase-negative Staphylococci, Enterobacter, E. coli, group B Streptococcus, Klebsiella, Pseudomonas, Serratia, and Staphylococcus aureus, as well as some anaerobes. 

Surviving sepsis depends on rapid, accurate identification, intervention, and management. The host inflammatory reaction was termed systemic inflammatory response syndrome (SIRS) by the American College of Chest Physicians and the Society of Critical Care Medicine in 1992. SIRS is defined by documented clinical evidence of bacterial infection (e.g., culture results) in the presence of two of four other criteria: temperature greater than 100.4°F or less than 96.8°F, heart rate greater than 90 beats/min, hyperventilation (greater than 20 breaths/minute or Paco2 less than 32 mm Hg), or white blood cell (WBC) count greater than 12 × 103/microL or less than 4 × 103/microL. The SIRS criteria is sensitive in identifying people who show signs of infection or inflammation and who may be at risk for developing sepsis, but retrospective studies show the criteria lacks specificity. Lower specificity resulted in over-identification of patients “at risk for developing. sepsis” and overconsumption of interventional resources. The criteria was reevaluated, and in 2001 diagnostic criteria for sepsis was developed to include the following: 

• Evidence or diagnosis of infection in the presence of other factors

• General metabolic factors associated with sepsis (fever, hypothermia, increased heart rate, altered mental status, positive fluid imbalance, hyperglycemia not associated with diabetes)

• Inflammatory factors (elevated WBC count, bandemia, elevated CRP, elevated procalcitonin)

• Hemodynamic factors (arterial hypotension, elevated mixed venous oxygen saturation, elevated cardiac output/index)

• Organ/system dysfunction indicators (arterial hypoxemia, significant oliguria, elevated serum creatinine, abnormally elevated coagulation test levels, thrombocytopenia, elevated total bilirubin)

• Tissue perfusion factors (elevated lactate, hypotension evidenced by decreased capillary refilling, e.g., skin mottling).

In 2016, a revised description, with newer recommendations, was proposed for sepsis and septic shock. The criteria also include clinical guidelines to facilitate more rapid identification of patients at risk. As with any transition of paradigms, it is important to consider the established guidelines as long as the information remains applicable, accurate, and relevant, which is to say that the SIRS and 2001 criteria should not be eliminated from consideration while the new tools are used to collect additional data. The latest recommendations define sepsis as life-threatening organ dysfunction brought about when the body’s normal regulatory response to infection is impaired. Septic shock is defined as a subset of sepsis in which the associated abnormalities place the patient at greater risk of death than from sepsis alone. The newest sepsis assessment tools include objective measurements of parameters widely available in healthcare facilities and laboratories. Although blood cultures, lactate, and procalcitonin are valued studies, they have the liabilities of turnaround times that exceed the urgent timeframe needed for effective intervention. Also, these established markers are not available in all laboratories and point-of-care testing options are available in even fewer facilities. Research continues for more sensitive and specific biomarkers for sepsis and includes assays for pancreatic stone protein, soluble CD14 (presepsin), the mid-region precursor fragment of adrenomedullin (MR-pro-ADM), and heparin-binding protein (HBP).

The Sequential (Sepsis Related) Organ Failure Assessment (SOFA) score is a point system developed to provide an objective tool to assess organ failure. Points (0–4) are assigned for each measurement, representing an organ system. Organ dysfunction is determined by an increase in the SOFA score of 2 points or more when evaluated over a fairly limited period of time, that is, less than 24 hrs, using the worst values collected over time in comparison to the baseline values. A number of SOFA calculators are available on the Internet; some scoring methods use additional qualifiers such as vasopressor specific criteria, but the basic assessment covers multiple organs/systems using objective measurements to include the following:

• Respiratory system: Partial pres￾sure of oxygen in arterial blood (Pao2)

• Coagulation process: Platelet count

• Liver function: Total bilirubin

• Cardiovascular system: Mean arterial pressure

• Central nervous system/altered mental status: Glasgow Coma Scale score

• Kidney function: Creatinine (serum) or urine output. 

The bedside companion to SOFA is called the Quick Sepsis-Related Organ Failure Assessment (qSOFA). The qSOFA algorithm utilizes yes/no responses as well as numeric data to calculate a score based on the following:

• Patient location (ICU or outside ICU e.g., emergency department or noncritical in-patient location;Y or N)

• Evidence of altered mentation (Y or N).

• Respiration rate in BPM (numeric value)

• Systolic blood pressure (numeric value).


• Assist in the diagnosis of bacteremia and septicemia.

• Assist in the differential diagnosis of bacterial versus viral meningitis.

• Assist in the differential diagnosis of community-acquired bacterial versus viral pneumonia.

• Monitor response to antibacterial therapy.




Increased in

• Bacteremia or septicemia (related to SIRS-induced overproduction of procalcitonin).

• Major surgery (related to inflammation in the absence of sepsis).

• Multiorgan failure (related to inflammation in the absence of sepsis).

• Neuroendocrine tumors (medullary thyroid cancer, small-cell lung cancer, and carcinoid tumors) (related to procalcitonin-secreting tumor cells).

• Severe burns (related to inflammation in the absence of sepsis).

• Severe trauma (related to inflammation in the absence of sepsis). 

• Treatment with OKT3 antibodies (antibody used to protect a transplanted organ or graft from attack by T cells and subsequent rejection) and other drugs that stimulate the release of cytokines (related to an inflammatory response in the absence of sepsis).

Decreased in: N/A 



Teaching the Patient What to Expect

➧ Inform the patient this test can assist in assessing for infection and response to antibiotic treatment.

➧ Explain that a blood sample is needed for the test. 


➧ Answer any questions or address any concerns voiced by the patient or family.

Follow-Up, Evaluation, and Desired Outcomes

➧ Understand that depending on the results of this procedure, additional testing may be performed to evaluate or monitor disease progression and determine the need for a change in therapy. 



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here