A false negative pregnancy test means that the test tells the patient they are not pregnant when they really are. Why does this occur? There are four well known reasons pregnancy tests can give false negative results.
1) The most common reason is testing too early after fertilization occurs. The pregnancy hormone, hCG, is not produced until implantation occurs and it takes several days for the hCG concentrations to get high enough in blood and then urine to give a positive signal. Most devices give positive results around the day of a woman's expected period, but this can vary widely.
2) Another reason for false negative results is dilute urine. If a woman drinks a lot of fluids, the concentration of hCG in the urine will be more dilute. For this reason many doctors recommend that testing be performed on the first urine of the morning because this tends to be the most concentrated (because you probably have not drank anything all night long).
3) A very rare cause of false negative results occurs when very, very, high concentrations of hCG are present. This is called the high-dose hook effect. The hCG assays works by forming a so-called "sandwich" with two different antibodies as the "bread" and the hCG molecule as the "meat." The hook effect occurs when the hCG concentration is so high that it saturates both antibodies and there are so many molecules that the antibodies don't actually form a sandwich. This is rare because women don't normally produce enough hCG to saturate both antibodies. The hook effect should be of concern in a hospital setting, but most women should not be concerned about a hook effect with their urine. A hook effect can be confirmed if testing shows a positive result after sample dilution.
4) Finally, the other reason for false negatives was only recently described and is referred to as the "variant hook effect." This is much more common than the hook effect. As pregnancy progresses, there are actually different variant forms of hCG that begin to appear in the urine. After about 5 weeks of pregnancy (i.e. 3 weeks after the expected period) concentrations of hCG beta core fragment are higher than all other forms of hCG. This is perfectly normal. Unfortunately, the concentration of hCG beta core fragment can saturate one of the antibodies used in the assay in certain pregnancy kits, and the other antibody doesn't recognize the beta core fragment. As a result, no sandwich forms and the test is read as a negative. The farther in pregnancy a woman is, the more likely that this false negative will occur. Similar to the hook effect, the variant hook effect can be confirmed if testing shows a positive result after diluting the sample.
Posted by Ann M. Gronowski, PhD 5/8/11