At a glance

Also known as

AST

Why get tested?

To detect liver damage

When to get tested?

If your doctor thinks that you have symptoms of a liver disorder

Sample required?

A blood sample drawn from a vein in your arm

What is being tested?

Aspartate aminostransferase (AST) is an enzyme found mostly in the liver, red blood cells, heart and other muscles. When liver, red blood cells, heart or muscle cells are injured, they release AST into the blood.

How is the sample collected for testing?

A sample is taken by needle from a vein in the arm.

The Test

How is it used?

Testing for AST is usually done to detect liver damage.

AST levels can be examined alongside other levels of liver enzymes, such as alkaline phosphatase (ALP) and alanine transaminase (ALT), to determine which form of liver disease is present.

When is it requested?

An AST test is requested with several other tests to help evaluate a patient who has symptoms of a liver disorder. Some of these symptoms include jaundice (yellowing of the eyes and skin), dark urine, nausea, vomiting, abdominal swelling, unusual weight gain and abdominal pain. AST can also be ordered, either by itself or with other tests, for:

  • persons who might have been exposed to hepatitis viruses
  • those who drink too much alcohol
  • persons who have a history of liver disease in their family, or
  • persons taking drugs that can occasionally damage the liver.

Persons who have mild symptoms, such as tiredness, may be tested for AST to make sure they do not have long-term (chronic) liver disease. AST is sometimes measured to monitor treatment of persons with liver disease and is usually ordered along with other tests.

What does the test result mean?

Very high levels of AST (more than 10 times the highest normal level) are usually due to a rapidly developing liver disease called acute hepatitis, which is often due to a virus infection. In acute hepatitis, AST levels usually stay elevated for about 1–2 months, but can take as long as 3–6 months to return to normal. In the slowly developing variety of liver disease, chronic hepatitis, AST levels are usually not as high, often less than 4 times the highest normal level. In chronic hepatitis, AST often varies between normal and slightly increased, so doctors might request the test regularly to determine the pattern of change.

In some diseases of the liver, especially when the bile ducts are totally or partially blocked or with cirrhosis, AST may be close to normal. When liver damage is due to alcohol, AST often increases much more than ALT (this is a pattern seen with few other liver diseases). AST can be increased from break-up of red blood cells (haemolysis), and is increased after heart attacks and with muscle injury.

Reference Intervals

Adult
Male       5 – 35 U/L
Female   5 – 30 U/L

The reference intervals shown above are known as a harmonised reference interval. This means that eventually all laboratories in Australia will eventually use this same interval so wherever your sample is tested, the reference interval should be the one shown above. Laboratories are in the process of adopting these harmonised intervals so it is possible that the intervals shown on the report of your results for this test may be slightly different until this change is fully adopted. More information can be found under Reference Intervals – An Overview.

Is there anything else I should know?

An injection of medicine into muscle tissue, or even strenuous exercise, may increase AST levels. In rare instances, some drugs can damage the liver or muscle, increasing AST levels. This is true of both prescription drugs and some 'natural' health products. If your doctor finds that you have high levels of AST, tell him or her about all the drugs and health products you are taking.

Common Questions

What other tests are used to evaluate liver disorders?

Other commonly used liver tests include more enzymes found in liver cells, such as alanine transferase (ALT) and alkaline phosphatase (ALP), gamma-glutamyl transferase (GGT) and bilirubin (a yellow pigment removed from the body by the liver).

Who is at risk for a liver disorder? 

While many things could harm the liver, the major causes of liver disease are infection by viruses that target the liver and by drinking too much alcohol.  In rare cases, some medicines can damage the liver; your doctor may suggest testing your liver from time to time if you are taking one of these.  Some diseases that are inherited from your parents can occasionally damage the liver.

What signs should make me aware of a liver disorder?

In many cases, liver disease is 'silent'. When the liver is damaged rapidly (a disease called acute hepatitis), the skin and the whites of the eyes often turn yellow, and the urine becomes brown.  In its late stages, liver disease may produce swelling of the abdomen, vomiting of blood, confusion, and easy bruising.


Last Review Date: November 10, 2018