Symptoms of High Prolactin Hormone Levels

How Too Much of the Hormone for Lactation and Breast Development Can Affect You

Prolactin is a hormone produced by the pituitary gland that stimulates lactation (the production of breast milk). It is also involved in the development of mammary glands, the regulation of the menstrual cycle in females, and the production of sperm in males.

While it is normal for prolactin levels to increase during pregnancy and breastfeeding, abnormal increases—referred to as hyperprolactinemia—can cause health problems ranging from irregular periods and sexual dysfunction to infertility and the inappropriate production of breast milk.

This article will describe the various symptoms and causes of high prolactin in females and males. It will also explain how hyperprolactinemia is diagnosed and treated by healthcare providers.

Blood test tubes

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Definitions

For the purpose of this article, “female” refers to people born with a vagina and “male” refer to people born with a penis irrespective of what gender or genders they identify with or whether they identify with any gender at all.

Symptoms of High Prolactin in Females

Females are more commonly affected by hyperprolactinemia than males. Studies suggest that as many as three of every five females with a reproductive disorder will have high prolactin. 

Symptoms of hyperprolactinemia in females include:

Symptoms of High Prolactin in Males

Symptoms of hyperprolactinemia in males are often harder to recognize because they tend to be more subtle and non-specific than those experienced by females.

Symptoms of hyperprolactinemia in males include:

  • Loss of libido
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Infertility (due to decreased sperm production)
  • Gynecomastia (abnormal breast enlargement)
  • Galactorrhea (uncommon but possible)

Mood Symptoms of Hyperprolactinemia

Our moods are greatly influenced by hormones, including sex hormones like estrogen and testosterone. Hyperprolactinemia has a cause-and-effect relationship with these and other hormones.

In some cases, hyperprolactinemia may be the result of diseases of the ovaries or testicles, both of which produce estrogen and testosterone. In other cases, dysfunction of the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, or adrenal glands (HPA axis) can lead to an imbalance of sex hormones and other hormones that influence moods (like dopamine).

These changes can significantly alter moods in people with hyperprolactinemia. The severity of symptoms tends to increase with the level and duration of prolactin increases.

Mood symptoms related to hyperprolactinemia include:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Irritability and hostility
  • Somatization (physical symptoms arising from psychological distress, such as headaches, chest pain, back pain, nausea, and fatigue)
  • Psychosis (a loss of touch with reality)

Causes of High Prolactin

The secretion of prolactin by the pituitary gland (a pea-sized body organ located at the base of the brain) is regulated by two hormones:

When prolactin levels are abnormally high, it is due to conditions that either decrease the production of dopamine, increase the production of TRH, or both.

This may be caused by diseases or disorders that directly or indirectly affect the function of the HPA axis.

Among some of the more common causes of hyperprolactinemia are:

The Most Common Cause

The most common cause of hyperprolactinemia is a type of pituitary adenoma (tumor) known as a prolactinoma. This benign tumor tends to appear for no known reason, although there are a few types that can be inherited from a parent.

Diagnosis of High Prolactin

Prolactin is measured with a blood test performed in a fasting state (meaning you will not have eaten since the night before the test).

The results are interpreted based on a reference range of values, meaning a high and low value between which the results are considered normal. The values are described in either nanograms per milliliter of blood (ng/mL) or micrograms per liter of blood (µg/L)

Normal prolactin levels are generally defined as follows:

  • Males: Less than 20 ng/mL (425 µg/L) 
  • Females: Less than 25 ng/mL (25 µg/L)
  • Pregnant females: Between 80 and 400 ng/mL (80 and 400 µg/L)

Anything above these values in a fasting state is considered hyperprolactinemia.

Your healthcare provider may also order an imaging test called magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) that may be able to detect a pituitary adenoma or pituitary inflammation.

Treatment of High Prolactin

If you have hyperprolactinemia, the goal of treatment is to get prolactin levels back to normal. This can often be done by treating the underlying cause. If hyperprolactinemia is drug-induced, a change of treatment or dosage may help lower prolactin levels.

In some cases, medications called dopamine agonists may be prescribed to increase the brain’s receptiveness to dopamine. The two most common dopamine agonists used for hyperprolactinemia are Dostinex (cabergoline) and Parlodel (bromocriptine). The dosage is gradually increased until prolactin levels are normalized.

If high prolactin is caused by a pituitary adenoma, surgery may be needed.

After successful treatment, your healthcare provider may want you to have regular blood tests to ensure that prolactin levels stay within a normal range. If your condition was caused by a tumor, you may need another MRI to monitor for the reappearance or enlargement of the growth.

Summary

Symptoms of high prolactin levels include irregular periods, loss of sex drive, sexual dysfunction, heavy menstrual bleeding, weight gain, anxiety, depression, and psychosis.

High prolactin levels (hyperprolactinemia) can be caused by many different things, including diseases and disorders of the pituitary gland, adrenal glands, thyroid gland, brain, kidney, liver, ovaries, and testicles. Certain medications can also cause higher prolactin levels.

Hyperprolactinemia is diagnosed with a blood test. The treatment can vary by the underlying cause, but the ultimate goal is to restore prolactin to normal levels.

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Nicole Galan, RN
Nicole Galan, RN, is a registered nurse and the author of "The Everything Fertility Book."