Beta-hCG Levels and What They Mean

Woman getting her blood drawn in a doctor's office

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Many pregnant women and those trying to conceive may have heard the term beta-hCG in relation to pregnancy testing and wonder what it means.

Beta-hCG (β-hCG) is a test that measures the amount of human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) in the blood. This hormone is produced as soon as 10 days post-conception and an above-normal level can confirm pregnancy.

Aside from this, the beta-hCG test may also be used during evaluations of fertility treatments (a synthetic form of the hormone is sometimes used to help follicles mature and trigger ovulation), as well as when there are concerns that something may be wrong with a pregnancy.

Also Known As

The beta-hCG blood test is also sometimes called the:

  • Quantitative blood pregnancy test
  • Quantitative hCG blood test
  • Quantitative serial beta-hCG test
  • Quantitative serum beta-HCG test

What Beta hCG Measures

Pregnancy testing involves the detection of hCG either in the urine or blood.

The urine test is a qualitative one in that it can only tell you if the sample is positive or negative for hCG. The same goes for the qualitative hCG blood test.

In contrast, the beta hCG is a quantitative test, meaning it reveals not just that the hormone is present in the blood, but in exactly what amounts. Levels of hCG are measured in milli-international units per milliliter (mIU/ml).

When Beta-hCG Tests Are Used

The beta-hCG test may be done to confirm pregnancy at an early prenatal doctor's visit (as a follow-up to a positive at-home or in-office urine test).

But the beta hCG is not always done or necessary in routine pregnancies. Many practitioners use transvaginal ultrasound at pregnancy confirmation visits to actually see visible evidence of the pregnancy (the gestational sac) instead.

The beta-hCG test is also used when there are concerns about pregnancy complications, including miscarriage. In these situations, repeat tests may be performed every two to three days to evaluate how quickly hCG levels are rising.

Early on in pregnancy, the rate of increase is more telling than the actual quantity of the hormone in the blood. Slow-to-rise hCG levels may indicate a high risk for miscarriage.

If you are undergoing fertility treatments, your doctor may order a beta-hCG test just before or when your period is due to see if the efforts were successful.

Doctors caring for women taking hCG shots to improve their chances of conception or as part of the intrauterine insemination (IUI) or in vitro fertilization (IVF) process need to carefully time a beta-hCG test to ensure that the medication has cleared the body and will not affect test results.

Other uses for the beta-hCG test during pregnancy include:

  • Determining the age of a fetus: A beta-hCG test cannot always pinpoint the precise gestational age. However, your results—considered alongside the date of your last period—can give your doctor a general idea, as expected hCG ranges change with each passing week in the first trimester.
  • Fetal screening: A beta hCG is one part of both the maternal serum triple and quadruple screening tests done between 15 and 20 weeks' gestation to assess for markers of certain fetal health problems, including Down syndrome.

Unrelated to pregnancy, the beta-hCG test may help diagnose some cancers.

Beta hCG Levels in Pregnancy

The following are the typical ranges of hCG levels during pregnancy. These ranges are just guidelines, as every pregnancy is different.

Expected hCG Levels in the First Trimester
Time Since Last Period hCG Range (if Pregnant)
 3 Weeks  5 to 72 mIU/ml
 4 Weeks  10 to 708 mIU/ml
 5 Weeks  217 to 8,245 mIU/ml
 6 Weeks  152 to 32,177 mIU/ml
 7 Weeks  4,059 to 153,767 mIU/ml
 8 Weeks  31,366 to 149,094 mIU/ml
 9 Weeks  59,109 to 135,901 mIU/ml
 10 Weeks  44,186 to 170,409 mIU/ml
 12 Weeks  27,107 to 201,165 mIU/ml
 14 Weeks  24,302 to 93,646 mIU/ml
 16 Weeks  8,904 to 55,332 mIU/ml

Remember: Whether you have high or low levels of the hormone is not the key indicator of a healthy pregnancy. This is because many factors can influence total hCG levels, including maternal smoking, body mass index (BMI), ethnicity, parity (the number of times a woman has given birth), and hyperemesis gravidarum (severe morning sickness).

Doctors instead look to see if hCG levels double every 48 to 72 hours from whatever level they started at. They look for this in the initial weeks of pregnancy, as it's normal for hCG levels to peak around 8 to 11 weeks' gestation, then decrease, and level off thereafter.

If Beta-hCG Levels Are Lower Than Expected

If your hCG levels are low, it is likely that another test will be performed in a few days to confirm if levels are increasing or not.

If your beta-hCG levels are lower than expected (and remain low in repeated testing), this may indicate:

If one of these issues is suspected, your practitioner will do other tests, typically a transvaginal ultrasound, to determine the status of your pregnancy.

If Beta-hCG Levels Are Higher Than Expected

Reasons your beta-hCG levels may be higher than expected include:

  • Incorrect pregnancy date
  • A multiple pregnancy
  • Molar pregnancy (when a mass of tissue grows inside of the uterus instead of a placenta)

Again, an atypical result will be followed up with repeat testing and/or other evaluations to figure out what is going on.  

A Word From Verywell

If you see your hCG results on a lab report before you have the opportunity to speak about them with your doctor, try not to jump to your own conclusions.

While informative, a beta-hCG test is just one way that doctors gather information about—and determine the status of—a pregnancy.

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Article Sources
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