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AIM: To analyse critically a protocol for the investigation of girls presenting with virilisation in childhood. METHODS: Twenty five girls aged 1.6-8.7 years with features of virilisation were evaluated. Twenty four had presented with pubic hair, eight with auxilliary hair, seven with facial acne, four with clitoromegaly, and 10 with tall stature. They underwent clinical assessment (height, weight, height velocity, staging of puberty, physical examination for acne, body odour, and clitoromegaly) and laboratory assessment comprising basal concentrations of cortisol, 17 OH-progesterone (17 OHP), androstenedione, dehydroepiandrosteronesulphate (DHEAS), testosterone, and oestradiol. The above steroids were also measured during the short synacthen test (0.25 mg intramuscularly) in 16 subjects and low dose dexamethasone suppression tests (0.5 mg at six hourly intervals over 48 hours). Pelvic ultrasound, computed tomography and magnetic resonance imaging of adrenals were carried out when the biochemical findings suggested that there might be an autonomous source of androgen secretion. RESULTS: Clinical and laboratory assessments differentiated the patients into three diagnostic categories: adrenarche (18 cases), congenital adrenal hyperplasia (five cases), and adrenocortical tumour (two cases). The last had elevated concentrations of DHEAS, 1.5 and 19.1 mumol/l (normal value < 0.5 mumol/l), androstenedione, 24.6 and 21.8 nmol/l (normal < 1 nmol/l), and testosterone, 4.5 and 2.4 nmol/l (normal < 0.8 nmol/l), with none suppressing on dexamethasone suppression. Congenital adrenal hyperplasia subjects had elevated basal serum concentrations of 17 OHP (n = 4): 250, 140, 14, and 14.1 nmol/l (normal < 10 nmol/l) and elevated peak values of 17 OHP after synacthen (n = 3): 76, 179.5, and 175 nmol/l. Adrenarche patients had elevated basal concentrations of DHEAS (median: 2.3 mumol/l; n = 17) and androstenedione (median 2.6 nmol/l; n = 17). Nine patients also had elevated basal serum testosterone concentrations (median 0.9 nmol/l). Peak values of 17 OHP after synacthen were significantly different from baseline (n = 12) and were < 50% of the lowest value in congenital adrenal hyperplasia. Serum DHEAS, androstenedione, and testosterone suppressed following dexamethasone suppression (n = 16), thereby distinguishing adrenarche patients from adrenal tumour patients. Clinical details did not distinguish patients, except for clitoromegaly which was present only in the tumour and congenital adrenal hyperplasia patients. CONCLUSIONS: This protocol proved useful and practical in cases of virilisation presenting particular diagnostic difficulty.