The objective of this study was to determine the diagnostic performance of the percentage of serum prolactin (PRL) precipitated with polyethylene glycol (PEG) for the detection of macroprolactinemia in systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) patients with hyperprolactinemia. Serum samples from SLE patients were examined. Serum PRL was measured by immunoradiometric assay (IRMA) and samples with hyperprolactinemia (> 20 ng/ml) were submitted to PEG precipitation, gel filtration chromatography and affinity chromatography with protein-G sepharose. A comparative survey was used. Among 259 consecutive serum samples from SLE patients, PRL was > 20.1 ng/ml in 43 samples (16.6%). Gel filtration showed a predominant pattern of macroprolactinemia (> 100 kDa) in 14 (32.6%), a predominant pattern of monomeric PRL (23 kDa) in 27 (62.7%), and a variable pattern in two (4.7%). All sera with a predominant pattern of macroprolactinemia displayed anti-PRL autoantibodies by affinity chromatography for IgG. The best cut-off point for percentage of serum PRL precipitated with PEG for detection of macroprolactinemia was > or = 58.4%. Sensitivity and specificity were 100 and 96.6%, respectively. We can conclude that PEG precipitation is a convenient and simple procedure to screen for the presence of macroprolactinemia in sera from SLE patients. Precipitations > or = 58.4% are indicative of the presence of, and those < 50% the absence of, macroprolactinemia. However, samples with precipitations between 50 and 58.3% require gel filtration chromatography to characterize the predominant molecular form of PRL. Therefore, it is important to take these findings into account in future studies that aim to establish a relationship between PRL and disease activity in SLE.