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How do health care providers diagnose phenylketonuria (PKU)?

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Nearly all cases of PKU are diagnosed through a blood test done on newborns.1

Newborn Screening for PKU

All 50 U.S. states and territories require that newborns get screened for PKU. In addition to the United States, many other countries routinely screen infants for PKU.1

Before screening for PKU was possible, most infants with the disorder developed severe intellectual disabilities. In the 1960s, researchers supported by the federal Children's Bureau determined that a test for PKU given to newborns was safe and effective. Later, the NICHD led research on the safety and effectiveness of a restricted diet to treat PKU. Since then, PKU has been almost completely eliminated as a cause of intellectual disabilities.2

How are newborns tested for PKU?

Health care providers conduct a PKU screening test using a few drops of blood from a newborn's heel. The blood sample, which can be used to screen for other conditions as well, is tested in a laboratory to determine if it has too much phenylalanine in it. The newborn screening test should be performed by the child's pediatrician if the mother did not give birth in a hospital or is discharged from the hospital before the test is performed.

What if my newborn tests positive for PKU?

If your newborn's screening test comes back positive for PKU, your child will need additional tests to confirm that he or she definitely has the disorder. It is very important to follow your health care providers' instructions for further tests. These tests may be blood or urine tests that may show whether or not the child has PKU. If your child does have PKU, getting treatment quickly will help protect your child's health.3

Your health care providers may also suggest genetic testing to look at the mutations in genes that cause PKU. This testing is not required to figure out whether your child has PKU, but it will help identify the specific type of genetic mutation causing the disorder. This information may be useful for determining the best treatment plan going forward.4

Screening for PKU Later in Life

In the United States, newborn screening identifies nearly all people born with PKU.1 However, there are concerns that cases of PKU could be missed due to errors at any step of the screening process—specimen collection, laboratory procedures, treatment initiation, or clinical follow-up. Missed cases are considered to be extremely rare. Because of these rare cases, health professionals recommend PKU testing if a person of any age has developmental delays or an intellectual disability.5

Testing during Pregnancy

A pregnant woman can request a prenatal DNA test to learn whether or not her child will be born with PKU. To perform this test, a health care provider takes some cells, either through a needle inserted into the abdomen or a small tube inserted into the vagina. A genetic counselor who understands the risks and benefits of genetic testing can help explain the choices available for testing.6 This discussion may be particularly useful for parents who already have one child with PKU, because they have a higher-than-average chance of conceiving another child with the disorder.


  1. Medline Plus. (2011, June). Newborn screening tests. Retrieved June 22, 2012, from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/007257.htm [top]
  2. NICHD. (2003). 40 years of human development research: Advancing science, enriching lives. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. [top]
  3. Baby's First Test. (n.d.). Classic phenylketonuria. Retrieved May 15, 2012, from http://www.babysfirsttest.org/newborn-screening/conditions/classic-phenylketonuria-pku External Web Site Policy [top]
  4. Screening, Technology, and Research in Genetics. (2007). Amino acid disorders: Phenylketonuria [Fact sheet]. Retrieved May 15, 2012, from http://www.newbornscreening.info/Parents/aminoaciddisorders/PKU.html#9 External Web Site Policy [top]
  5. National Human Genome Research Institute. (2010). Learning about phenylketonuria (PKU). Retrieved May 15, 2012, from http://www.genome.gov/25020037#al-1 [top]
  6. Screening, Technology, and Research in Genetics. (2007). Amino acid disorders: Phenylketonuria [Fact sheet]. Retrieved May 15, 2012, from http://www.newbornscreening.info/Parents/aminoaciddisorders/PKU.html#8 External Web Site Policy [top]

Last Updated Date: 10/23/2013
Last Reviewed Date: 08/23/2013
Vision National Institutes of Health Home BOND National Institues of Health Home Home Storz Lab: Section on Environmental Gene Regulation Home Machner Lab: Unit on Microbial Pathogenesis Home Division of Intramural Population Health Research Home Bonifacino Lab: Section on Intracellular Protein Trafficking Home Lilly Lab: Section on Gamete Development Home Lippincott-Schwartz Lab: Section on Organelle Biology