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What Does It Mean if Your C-Reactive Protein Is High?

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Inflammation caused by severe infection or injury is indicated by a high C-reactive protein. Likewise, it could be caused by an underlying autoimmune disorder, inflammatory bowel disease, metabolic syndrome, or cancer.

Additionally, if a high CRP level is not addressed, it increases your risk for heart disease. That is why taking the CRP blood test and detecting the cause of the elevated c-reactive protein ensures you don’t develop related complications. Read on and find out what high c-reactive protein means. 

What Is C-reactive Protein? The C-reactive protein (CRP) is a biomolecule produced by the liver when inflammation occurs anywhere in the body. CRP is released in the bloodstream and, thus, becomes a marker for health conditions that result in an inflammatory immune response.

What CRP Level Is Considered High? 

CRP level may go beyond 10 mg/L and is considered abnormally high relative to detecting inflammation. This value may indicate infection and other medical conditions like major trauma and autoimmune diseases that trigger inflammatory activities. 

On the other hand, when it comes to assessing your risk for cardiovascular diseases (CVDs) through a high-sensitivity CRP blood test, the following test values are used for reference in accordance with the American Heart Association (AHA) and Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines:

  • <1 mg/L: relatively lower risk for CVDs
  • 1 – 3 mg/L: average risk for CVDs
  • >3.1 – 10 mg/L: relatively high risk for CVDs

For those with higher risk, retesting within 1 to weeks is recommended to rule out inflammation caused by infections. Regardless of your test result, it’s best to seek advice on your next steps from a doctor via an in-person appointment or a virtual consultation

What Diseases Are Linked to High CRP Levels? 

Your CRP levels provide information about the presence of inflammation and your risk of heart disease. However, your CRP blood test result does not indicate a specific disease, as inflammatory activity is common in many medical conditions. 

As a standalone test, a CRP blood test is not enough to come up with an accurate diagnosis. Instead, your doctor may request additional tests to determine the definitive cause of the immune response. 

Nonetheless, there are several conditions associated with inflammation and, in turn, high CRP levels. The most notable ones are the following: 

Infections

Acute bacterial and viral infections lead to elevated CRP levels since your immune system will employ responses to fight off the pathogens (disease-causing microbes) as part of its defense strategy. In fact, research shows that CRP levels over 50 mg/dL are often connected to bacterial infections. Your cells will experience inflammation to help cells recover from the invasion.

However, prolonged inflammation will further damage your tissues and signal underlying health issues. While chronic inflammation is rarely linked to treatable infections, it is, however, sometimes connected to severe disorders.  

Next Step: If you exhibit symptoms of infections, your doctor may request a complete blood count (CBC) to check if your white blood cells have increased. Further testing will be required to identify the causative agent.

Autoimmune Diseases

A person with an autoimmune disease has immune cells attacking healthy cells for mistakenly identifying them as foreign invaders. Although research is yet to define the mechanism that leads to the development of such diseases, it’s clear that these conditions trigger chronic inflammation if not medically intervened. 

Next Step: Autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus result in elevated C-reactive protein. To diagnose these medical conditions, take the autoimmune blood test that corresponds with your symptoms, genetic disposition, and other factors your doctor will help determine.  

Did You Know? Inflammation can be aggravated if you have an autoimmune disease when you eat foods inclined to trigger immune sensitivity. Read more about six foods that worsen autoimmune diseases to help you plan your meals the right way. 

Inflammatory Bowel Diseases

Inflammatory bowel diseases (IBDs) like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are collective disorders characterized by chronic inflammation in the intestine, which can eventually damage the intestinal tissues, leading to further complications. 

These conditions can be due to environmental triggers in the gastrointestinal tract like pathogens or certain substances, Celiac disease, or a hereditary disposition to IBD.  

To determine the severity of the inflammation, a CRP blood test is often used in monitoring. Elevated CRP levels may indicate the effectiveness of a treatment or as part of the initial assessment for diagnosis. 

Next Step: Your doctor will perform an endoscopy to get a more detailed view of your intestinal tissues to make a proper diagnosis. If you’re suspected of having Celiac disease on top of IBD, serological tests for a Celiac disease will be requested. 

Metabolic Syndrome

Your metabolism influences nutrient absorption and overall organ function, which can be disrupted if you have high sugar levels, elevated serum fats, high blood pressure, and the like. 

These imbalances (collectively known as metabolic syndrome) are gateways for metabolic disorders like diabetes, hypertension, obesity, and hyperlipidemia. If you have more than three of these disorders, you may also develop chronic inflammation, indicated by high CRP levels in your blood.

Next Step: Most metabolic disorders are primarily preventable if diagnosed early. For example, if your physician determines your risk for diabetes, you will be advised to make some lifestyle adjustments. Generally, your doctor may request a comprehensive metabolic panel (CMP 14) blood test to screen for metabolic issues. 

Cancers

Studies show that patients with advanced forms of cancer have elevated CRP levels (>10 mg/L). Specifically, it’s prevalent among those with epithelial cancers like lung, breast, liver, colorectal, and ovarian cancer. Thus, CRP levels are often treated as a tumor marker for diagnostic and monitoring purposes.

Next Step: While CRP levels reveal crucial information about cancers, they are not definitive. In terms of diagnosis, your doctor may perform a biopsy and other imaging procedures depending on the cancer type. Likewise, other cancer serum tests, like the CEA blood test, will be requested during treatment monitoring. 

Complications of High C-Reactive Protein 

The most profound complication of high CRP levels is an increased risk for heart disease. Chronic inflammation signaled by elevated CRP causes significant damage to the blood vessels’ lining. This impacts blood circulation and influences plaque buildup, eventually leading to a heart attack. 

Your risk for cardiovascular disease increases if you have high C-reactive protein and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol (aka “bad cholesterol”). Similarly, addressing both serum abnormalities helps prevent ischemic stroke for those with a history of the condition. This strengthens the connection between LDL and CRP levels as far as heart disease goes. 

Know more about ischemic stroke vs. hemorrhagic stroke to understand how cholesterol, triglycerides, and CRP play crucial roles in differentiating, diagnosing, and treating these conditions. 

Pro Tip: Elevated CRP can be remedied through angiotensin receptor blockers (ARBs), like valsartan, olmesartan, and irbesartan. But you can also do something about it on your own to supplement the medications. Learn more about how to reduce high CRP levels naturally to improve your health. 

Frequently Asked Questions 

What are the symptoms of high C reactive protein?

The symptoms of high CRP levels mainly depend on what’s causing it. But since chronic inflammation directly associates with elevated CRP, you may experience conditions like fatigue, sudden weight loss, loss of appetite, low-grade fever, muscle pain, weakness, chills, headache, and nausea. 

Is high CRP life-threatening?

Your CRP level by itself does not pose any critical danger, but what it represents may indicate a life-threatening condition. For example, a sudden spike in your CRP levels can indicate an acute infection that requires immediate medical attention. Otherwise, you will risk fatal consequences like sepsis, wherein your blood becomes toxic. 

The rule of thumb for CRP levels is if it goes beyond 10 mg/L, you should go to the emergency room for treatment and diagnosis of the severe inflammation – whether a severe infection or other diseases cause it. 

What cancers can CRP detect?

A CRP blood test per se will not detect any cancer; it only screens for inflammation. However, since chronic inflammation can be a marker for certain tumors, diagnostic procedures for cancer often include screening for elevated CRP levels. Cancers linked to high CRP include ovarian, cervical, prostate,  lung, breast, liver, colorectal, and endometrial cancer. 

Did You Know? Aside from imaging tests and biopsy, doctors may also request cancer blood tests to help detect tumor markers, assess cancer stage, and monitor treatment. These tests are simpler and provide additional information on your rate of survival. 

The Bottom Line

Understanding what causes your high c-reactive protein allows your healthcare provider to uncover critical health problems, assign effective courses of treatment, and determine your risk for a heart attack. If you have elevated CRP levels, make sure to seek medical attention immediately. Likewise, if your CRP blood test shows you have a high risk for CVD, consider further heart health testing (regardless of your age) and make necessary lifestyle adjustments. 

Medically Approved By Dr. Edward Salko, MD

Dr. Edward Salko is the board-certified physician who reviews lab tests provided by PERSONALABS™. He earned his Bachelor of Science in chemistry and pre-med from the University of Florida in Gainesville and his Doctor of Osteopathy Medicine in 1980 from Kansas City University School of Medicine.

Dr. Salko’s career has specialized in family and emergency medicine. His passion is to provide clients with the tools they need in the most convenient way possible to allow them to take charge of their own healthcare. He has held a variety of positions in Kansas, Florida and Washington. Currently, in addition to his duties as Medical Director for Personalabs, he is a practicing emergency physician in Kennewick, Washington.

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