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      Expanding the use of salivary cortisol as a non-invasive outpatient test in the dynamic evaluation of suspected adrenal insufficiency


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          Adrenal insufficiency (AI) is potentially life-threatening, and accurate diagnosis is crucial. The first-line diagnostic test, the adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH) stimulation test, measures serum total cortisol. However, this is affected in states of altered albumin or cortisol-binding globulin levels, limiting reliability. Salivary cortisol reflects free bioactive cortisol levels and is a promising alternative. However, few studies are available, and heterogenous methodologies limit applicability.


          This study prospectively recruited 42 outpatients undergoing evaluation for AI, excluding participants with altered cortisol-binding states. Serum (immunoassay) and salivary (liquid chromatography tandem mass spectrometry) cortisol levels were sampled at baseline, 30 min, and 60 min following 250 µg synacthen administration. AI was defined as a peak serum cortisol level <500 nmol/L in accordance with guidelines.


          The study recruited 21 (50%) participants with AI and 21 without AI. There were no significant differences in baseline characteristics, blood pressure, or sodium levels between groups. Following synacthen stimulation, serum and salivary cortisol levels showed good correlation at all timepoints ( R 2 = 0.74, P < 0.001), at peak levels ( R 2 = 0.72, P < 0.001), and at 60 min ( R 2 = 0.72, P < 0.001). A salivary cortisol cut-off of 16.0 nmol/L had a sensitivity of 90.5% and a specificity of 76.2% for the diagnosis of AI.


          This study demonstrates a good correlation between serum and salivary cortisol levels during the 250 µg synacthen test. A peak salivary cortisol cut-off of 16.0 nmol/L can be used for the diagnosis of AI. It is a less invasive alternative to evaluate patients with suspected AI. Its potential utility in the diagnosis of AI in patients with altered cortisol-binding states should be further studied.

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          Most cited references46

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          Diagnosis and Treatment of Primary Adrenal Insufficiency: An Endocrine Society Clinical Practice Guideline.

          This clinical practice guideline addresses the diagnosis and treatment of primary adrenal insufficiency.
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            The diagnosis of Cushing's syndrome: an Endocrine Society Clinical Practice Guideline.

            The objective of the study was to develop clinical practice guidelines for the diagnosis of Cushing's syndrome. The Task Force included a chair, selected by the Clinical Guidelines Subcommittee (CGS) of The Endocrine Society, five additional experts, a methodologist, and a medical writer. The Task Force received no corporate funding or remuneration. Consensus was guided by systematic reviews of evidence and discussions. The guidelines were reviewed and approved sequentially by The Endocrine Society's CGS and Clinical Affairs Core Committee, members responding to a web posting, and The Endocrine Society Council. At each stage the Task Force incorporated needed changes in response to written comments. After excluding exogenous glucocorticoid use, we recommend testing for Cushing's syndrome in patients with multiple and progressive features compatible with the syndrome, particularly those with a high discriminatory value, and patients with adrenal incidentaloma. We recommend initial use of one test with high diagnostic accuracy (urine cortisol, late night salivary cortisol, 1 mg overnight or 2 mg 48-h dexamethasone suppression test). We recommend that patients with an abnormal result see an endocrinologist and undergo a second test, either one of the above or, in some cases, a serum midnight cortisol or dexamethasone-CRH test. Patients with concordant abnormal results should undergo testing for the cause of Cushing's syndrome. Patients with concordant normal results should not undergo further evaluation. We recommend additional testing in patients with discordant results, normal responses suspected of cyclic hypercortisolism, or initially normal responses who accumulate additional features over time.
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              Salivary cortisol: a better measure of adrenal cortical function than serum cortisol.

              Salivary cortisol concentration was found to be directly proportional to the serum unbound cortisol concentration both in normal men and women and in women with elevated cortisol-binding globulin (CBG). The correlation was excellent in dynamic tests of adrenal function (dexamethasone suppression, ACTH stimulation), in normals and patients with adrenal insufficiency, in tests of circadian variation and randomly collected samples. Women in the third trimester of normal pregnancy exhibited elevated salivary cortisol throughout the day. The relationship between salivary and serum total cortisol concentration was markedly non-linear with a more rapid increase in salivary concentration once the serum CBG was saturated. The rate of equilibrium of cortisol between blood and saliva was very fast, being much less than 5 minutes. These data, combined with a simple, stress-free, non-invasive collection procedure, lead us to suggest that salivary cortisol is a more appropriate measure for the clinical assessment of adrenocortical function than is serum cortisol.

                Author and article information

                Endocr Connect
                Endocr Connect
                Endocrine Connections
                Bioscientifica Ltd (Bristol )
                16 February 2023
                17 February 2023
                01 April 2023
                : 12
                : 4
                : e230004
                [1 ]Department of Endocrinology , Singapore General Hospital, Singapore
                [2 ]Department of Speciality Nursing , Singapore General Hospital, Singapore
                Author notes
                Correspondence should be addressed to S Tan: sarah.tan.y.t@ 123456singhealth.com.sg
                Author information
                © the author(s)

                This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

                : 07 February 2023
                : 16 February 2023

                adrenal insufficiency,synacthen test,acth stimulation test,salivary cortisol


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