Routine measurement of serum calcitonin (CT) has been recently proposed for all patients with neoplastic thyroid disease to detect clinically occult medullary thyroid carcinoma (MTC). Data on the prevalence of elevated CT levels in nonneoplastic thyroid disease or in healthy subjects have not been reported to date. Four hundred and fourteen consecutive patients with suspected thyroid disease and 362 healthy controls underwent thyroid examination with measurement of basal serum CT. Whenever serum CT was 10 pg/ml or more, a pentagastrin (PG) stimulation test was performed. Twenty-eight of 414 patients (6.8%) showed elevated basal serum CT levels, 15 of them with nonneoplastic thyroid disease, and the remaining 13 subjects with neoplastic thyroid disease. Four patients with abnormal PG testing (stimulated CT, > or = 100 pg/ml) were identified. Three of them had biochemical and sonographical evidence of thyroiditis. Elevated basal CT levels were significantly more frequent in patients with Hashimoto's thyroiditis (HT; P < 0.05). One female patient with HT had a 5-mm nodule, which was classified as MTC. None of the 6 out of 362 healthy controls with elevated basal CT (1.7%) presented an abnormal PG test. Our data suggest that basal CT measurements can be of use in the detection/screening of MTC not only in subjects with neoplastic thyroid disorders, but also in patients with immunological evidence of HT. They also confirm earlier reports on the essential value of PG stimulation testing, even when basal plasma CT levels are only modestly elevated, with regard to establishing the diagnosis of MTC or its premalignant associated conditions (micro-MTC and neoplastic C cell hyperplasia).