Acute-phase Proteins, CRP, ESR and Viscosity

oPatientPlus articles are written by UK doctors and are based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. They are designed for health professionals to use, so you may find the language more technical than the condition leaflets.

Acute-phase proteins are proteins whose levels fluctuate in response to tissue injury - eg, trauma, myocardial infarction, acute infections, burns, chronic inflammation (as in Crohn's disease, rheumatoid arthritis and malignancy). The acute-phase response is general and nonspecific. Measurement can only be interpreted in the light of full clinical information.

The stimulus for production is likely to be inflammatory cytokines such as interleukin-1, interleukin-6 and tumour necrosis factor (TNF). Acute-phase proteins include:

  • C-reactive protein (CRP)
  • Alpha-1 acid glycoprotein
  • Alpha-1 antitrypsin
  • Haptoglobins
  • Ceruloplasmin
  • Serum amyloid A
  • Fibrinogen
  • Ferritin
  • Complement components C3, C4

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The erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR) measures how fast red cells fall through a column of blood. It is an indirect index of acute-phase protein concentrations (particularly depends on the concentration of fibrinogen) and is a sensitive but nonspecific index of plasma protein changes which result from inflammation or tissue damage.[1] 

  • The ESR is affected by haematocrit variations, red cell abnormalities (eg, sickle cells) and delay in analysis (the sample should be analysed in the laboratory within four hours). It is therefore less reliable a measurement than plasma viscosity.
  • It is also affected by age, sex, menstrual cycle, pregnancy and drugs (eg, steroids).
  • A normal ESR does not exclude organic disease. A mildly elevated ESR of 20-30 mm/hour probably doesn't mean very much in itself but above 100 mm/hour is very significant and indicates something is wrong.
  • High ESR: any inflammatory disorder (eg, infection, rheumatoid), tuberculosis, myocardial infarction (early response), anaemia, polymyalgia rheumatica/temporal arteritis.
  • Low ESR: polycythaemia, hypofibrinogenaemia, congestive cardiac failure, spherocytosis, sickle cells.
  • The ESR is more useful than serum CRP for diagnosis and monitoring of polymyalgia rheumatica or temporal arteritis and is more frequently elevated during relapse.
  • Combined use of ESR and CRP is useful in assessing the severity of acute pelvic inflammatory disease.
  • Raised ESR is also a marker for coronary heart disease.[2] 
  • Is also a sensitive but nonspecific index of plasma protein changes which result from inflammation or tissue damage. It provides similar information to the ESR.
  • Increases in parallel with the ESR, but plasma viscosity is not affected by haematocrit variations (eg, anaemia or polycythaemia) and delay in analysis. It is therefore considered to be vastly under-utilised and more reliable than the ESR.
  • It is not affected by gender but is affected by age (but less so than ESR), exercise and pregnancy.
  • High level usually indicates underlying pathology but a low level can be ignored.
  • Is better than ESR in monitoring hyperviscosity syndromes - eg, myeloma.
  • Sensitivity and specificity are better than for ESR and CRP in discriminating between active and inactive rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Increased plasma viscosity and hyperfibrinogenaemia are risk factors for subsequent adverse events in unstable angina and stroke.
  • Plasma viscosity increases in relation to progression of peripheral occlusive vascular disease and correlates with clinical stages of the disease.
  • Is an acute-phase protein which increases in connective tissue disorders and neoplastic disease. It is increased by bacterial infections and generally less elevated in viral infections.
  • CRP is better than ESR for monitoring fast changes as it does not depend on fibrinogen or immunoglobulin levels, and is not affected by red blood cell numbers and shape.[3]
  • The name derives from its ability to react with the C polysaccharide of Streptococcus pneumoniae, but it may also bind to chromatin in nuclear DNA-histone complexes. Once bound, it is able to activate the classical complement pathway.
  • CRP concentrations characteristically return to normal after seven days of appropriate treatment for bacterial meningitis if no complications develop. Serial monitoring of serum and CSF-CRP concentrations may be useful clinically.
  • CRP is nonspecific and its clinical usefulness is therefore limited, especially in diagnosis. CRP is useful in monitoring disease activity in certain conditions (eg, rheumatoid arthritis, infections or malignancy) and as a prognostic marker for conditions such as acute pancreatitis.
  • An increased CRP may be due to:
    • Inflammatory disorders - eg, inflammatory arthritis, vasculitis, Crohn's disease.
    • Tissue injury or necrosis - eg, burns, necrosis, myocardial infarction, pulmonary embolus.
    • Infections, especially bacterial:[4][5] 
      • Levels of CRP rise significantly during acute inflammation, and so can be used for to indicate the presence of significant inflammatory or infectious disease, especially in children.
      • Low specificity may be a drawback as a biomarker of sepsis in adults, but it is commonly used to screen for early-onset sepsis in neonates.
    • Malignancy.
    • Tissue rejection.
  • Little or no rise occurs in osteoarthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), leukaemia, anaemia, polycythaemia, viral infection, ulcerative colitis, pregnancy, oestrogens or steroids.
  • There is evidence for raised CRP being an important risk factor for atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease. High CRP levels are also associated with a poorer prognosis for patients with acute coronary syndrome.[6] However the role of CRP in atherosclerosis is controversial.[7] 
  • CRP has also been shown to have predictive value of the development of type 2 diabetes, even after adjustment for a patient's body weight.[8] It has been claimed that the CRP increases for each symptom of the metabolic syndrome present.
  • Ferritin is an iron-protein complex found in most tissues, but particularly the bone marrow and reticuloendothelial system. It is an acute-phase protein and may be increased in inflammation, malignancy and liver disease.
  • It is a primary iron-storage protein and often measured to assess a patient's iron status. However, this will not be an appropriate test of iron stores when any of the above causes of increased ferritin are present.
  • Only 10% of cases of elevated ferritin levels are due to iron overload. Chronic alcohol consumption, metabolic syndrome, obesity, diabetes, malignancy, infection and inflammatory conditions explain 90% of cases of elevated serum ferritin.[9] 
  • Haptoglobin is an alpha-2 globulin, whose function is to remove free plasma haemoglobin. Haptoglobins are therefore decreased during any cause of haemolysis.
  • Haptoglobin is also an acute-phase protein. Haptoglobins are increased in malignancy (especially if there are bone secondaries), inflammation, trauma, surgery, steroid or androgen therapy and also in diabetes.

Further reading & references

  1. Aguiar FJ, Ferreira-Junior M, Sales MM, et al; C-reactive protein: clinical applications and proposals for a rational use. Rev Assoc Med Bras. 2013 Jan-Feb;59(1):85-92.
  2. Yayan J; Erythrocyte sedimentation rate as a marker for coronary heart disease. Vasc Health Risk Manag. 2012;8:219-23. doi: 10.2147/VHRM.S29284. Epub 2012 Apr 11.
  3. Black S, Kushner I, Samols D; C-reactive Protein. J Biol Chem. 2004 Nov 19;279(47):48487-90. Epub 2004 Aug 26.
  4. Henriquez-Camacho C, Losa J; Biomarkers for Sepsis. Biomed Res Int. 2014;2014:547818. Epub 2014 Mar 30.
  5. Lelubre C, Anselin S, Zouaoui Boudjeltia K, et al; Interpretation of C-reactive protein concentrations in critically ill patients. Biomed Res Int. 2013;2013:124021. doi: 10.1155/2013/124021. Epub 2013 Oct 28.
  6. Montgomery JE, Brown JR; Metabolic biomarkers for predicting cardiovascular disease. Vasc Health Risk Manag. 2013;9:37-45. doi: 10.2147/VHRM.S30378. Epub 2013 Jan 29.
  7. Zimmermann O, Li K, Zaczkiewicz M, et al; C-Reactive Protein in Human Atherogenesis: Facts and Fiction. Mediators Inflamm. 2014;2014:561428. Epub 2014 Apr 1.
  8. Dehghan A, van Hoek M, Sijbrands EJ, et al; Risk of type 2 diabetes attributable to C-reactive protein and other risk factors. Diabetes Care. 2007 Oct;30(10):2695-9. Epub 2007 Jul 10.
  9. Goot K, Hazeldine S, Bentley P, et al; Elevated serum ferritin - what should GPs know? Aust Fam Physician. 2012 Dec;41(12):945-9.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.

Original Author:
Dr Colin Tidy
Current Version:
Peer Reviewer:
Dr Adrian Bonsall
Last Checked:
28/05/2014
Document ID:
1767 (v22)
© EMIS