The Provider Primer Series: Mast cell activation syndrome (MCAS)

Mast cell activation syndrome (MCAS), also called mast cell activation disorder (MCAD), is an immunologic condition in which mast cells are aberrantly activated, resulting in inappropriate mediator release.


  • MCAS can be responsible for chronic symptoms in multiple organs that cannot be attributed to another cause[vi].
  • Patients frequently receive diagnosis for a number of idiopathic conditions prior to correct diagnosis with MCAS[vi].
  • Mast cell activation syndrome is overwhelmingly a secondary condition. MCAS can be secondary to a number of conditions, including autoimmune diseases, connective tissue diseases, and atopic conditions[i].
  • The term “primary MCAS” refers to mediator release symptoms associated with mastocytosis[xvii] . However, the term “mastocytosis” generally conveys the understanding that both proliferation and mediator release symptoms are possible.
  • In idiopathic MCAS, no cause for symptoms can be identified[xvii] .
  • The presence of multiple mast cell patients in one family is not uncommon. A heritable gene has not yet been identified. Epigenetic mechanisms are suspected for transmission of mast cell disease to another generation[iv].
  • Approximately 75% of mast cell patients have at least one first degree relative with mast cell disease and not always the same subtype[ii]. For example, a mother may have MCAS, while one of her children has SM and the other has CM.

Diagnostic criteria

  • MCAS is a recently described diagnosis. In the absence of large studies, several groups have developed their own, sometimes conflicting, diagnostic criteria.
  • Differential diagnoses with potential to cause similar symptoms should be considered and excluded[iii].
  • The criteria most frequently used include those by a 2010 paper by Akin, Valent and Metcalfe[iii]; a 2011 paper by Molderings, Afrin and colleagues[iv]; and a 2013 paper by Castells and colleagues[v].
  • The criteria described in the 2011 paper by Molderings, Afrin and colleagues have been updated to include response to medication[vi].
  • Of note, a 2012 consensus proposal[x] was authored by a number of mast cell experts including Valent, Escribano, Castells, Akin and Metcalfe. It sees little practical use and is not generally accepted in the community.
  • The major sets of criteria listed above all include the following features:
    • Recurrent or chronic symptoms of mast cell activation
    • Objective evidence of excessive mast cell mediator release
    • Positive response to medications that inhibit action of mast cell mediators
  • Valent warns that in some cases, patients may not fulfill all criteria but still warrant treatment: “In many cases, only two or even one of these three criteria can be documented. In the case of typical symptoms, the provisional diagnosis of ‘possibly MCA/MCAS’ can be established, and in acute cases, immediate treatment should be introduced.”[vii]

Evidence of mediator release

  • Mast cells produce a multitude of mediators including tryptase, histamine, prostaglandin D2, leukotrienes C4, D4 and E4, heparin and chromogranin A[viii].
  • Serum tryptase and 24 hour urine testing for n-methylhistamine, prostaglandin D2, prostaglandin 9a,11b-F2 are frequently included in testing guidelines in literature (Castells 2013)[ix], (Akin 2010)[x], (Valent 2012)[xi].
  • It can be helpful to test for other mast cell mediators including 24 hour urine testing for leukotriene E4[xii]; plasma heparin[xiii]; and serum chromogranin A[xiv].
  • In most instances, elevation of a mediator must be present on two occasions[ix]. This helps to exclude situations of appropriate mast cell activation, such as infection or wound healing.
  • For patients with baseline tryptase level >15 ng/mL, elevation of tryptase above this baseline is only required on one occasion[viii].

Symptoms associated with mast cell activation

  • Mediator release causes a wide array of symptoms, including hypertension[xv], hypotension, hypertension, wheezing, itching, flushing, tachycardia, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, headache, angioedema, fatigue, and neurologic symptoms[iv].
  • In a small MCAS cohort (18 patients), 17% had a history of anaphylaxis[xvii] . A larger data set is desirable.
  • Patients with history of anaphylaxis should be prescribed epinephrine autoinjectors[v]. If patient must be on a beta blocker, they should be prescribed a glucagon injector for use in the event of anaphylaxis[v].

Response to medications that inhibit action of mast cell mediators

  • Treatment of MCAS is complex and may require a number of medications. Second generation H1 antihistamines; H2 antihistamines; and mast cell stabilizers are mainstays of treatment[xvi].
  • Additional options include aspirin; anti-IgE; leukotriene blocker; and corticosteroids[xiii] .
  • First generation H1 antihistamines may be used for breakthrough symptoms[xiii] .
  • “An important point is that many different mediators may be involved in MCA-related symptoms so that the final conclusion the patient is not responding to antimediator therapy should only be drawn after having applied several different antimediator-type drugs[xiii] .
  • Inactive ingredients are often to blame for reaction to mast cell mediator focused medications. Many mast cell patients see benefit from having medications compounded[xvii].

Natural history

  • In one MCAS cohort of 18 patients, 33% had a complete (no unmanaged symptoms) response and 33% had a major (only one serious symptom) response after one year of mast cell treatment[xviii].
  • In another MCAS cohort of 135 patients, 51% demonstrated significant improvement, 11% had no obvious change in symptom severity and 38% experienced worsening symptoms[v]. (Author’s note: While described in an Afrin 2016[v] paper, the data from this cohort has not yet been published. Molderings is the principle investigator.



[i] Frieri M, et al. (2013). Mast cell activation syndrome: a review. Current Allergy and Asthma Reports, 13(1), 27-32.

[ii] Molderings GJ, et al. (2013). Familial occurrence of systemic mast cell activation disease. PLoS One, 8, e76241-24098785

[iii] Akin C, et al. (2010). Mast cell activation syndrome: proposed diagnostic criteria. J Allergy Clin Immunol, 126(6), 1099-1104.e4

[iv] Molderings GJ, et al. (2011). Mast cell activation disease: a concise practical guide for diagnostic workup and therapeutic options. Journal of Hematology & Oncology, 4(10), 10.1186/1756-8722-4-10

[v] Castells M, et al. (2013). Expanding spectrum of mast cell activation disorders: monoclonal and idiopathic mast cell activation syndromes. Clin Ther, 35(5), 548-562.

[vi] Afrin LB, et al. (2016). Often seen, rarely recognized: mast cell activation disease – a guide to diagnosis and therapeutic options. Annals of Medicine, 48(3).

[vii] Valent P. (2013). Mast cell activation syndromes: definition and classification. European Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, 68(4), 417-424.

[viii] Theoharides TC, et al. (2012). Mast cells and inflammation. Biochimica et Biophysica Acta (BBA) – Molecular Basis of Disease, 1822(1), 21-33.

[ix] Picard M, et al. (2013). Expanding spectrum of mast cell activation disorders: monoclonal and idiopathic mast cell activation syndromes. Clinical Therapeutics, 35(5), 548-562.

[x] Akin C, et al. (2010). Mast cell activation syndrome: proposed diagnostic criteria. J Allergy Clin Immunol, 126(6), 1099-1104.e4

[xi] Valent P, et al. (2012). Definitions, criteria and global classification of mast cell disorders with special reference to mast cell activation syndromes: a consensus proposal. Int Arch Allergy Immunol, 157(3), 215-225.

[xii] Lueke AJ, et al. (2016). Analytical and clinical validation of an LC-MS/MS method for urine leukotriene E4: a marker of systemic mastocytosis. Clin Biochem, 49(13-14), 979-982.

[xiii] Vysniauskaite M, et al. (2015). Determination of plasma heparin level improves identification of systemic mast cell activation disease. PLoS One, 10(4), e0124912

[xiv] Zenker N, Afrin LB. (2015). Utilities of various mast cell mediators in diagnosing mast cell activation syndrome. Blood, 126(5174).

[xv] Shibao C, et al. (2005). Hyperadrenergic postural tachycardia syndrome in mast cell activation disorders. Hypertension, 45(3), 385-390.

[xvi] Cardet JC, et al. (2013). Immunology and clinical manifestations of non-clonal mast cell activation syndrome. Curr Allergy Asthma Rep, 13(1), 10-18.

[xvii] Afrin LB. “Presentation, diagnosis and management of mast cell activation syndrome.” In: Mast Cells. Edited by David B. Murray, Nova cience Publishers, Inc., 2013, 155-232.

[xviii] Hamilton MJ, et al. (2011). Mast cell activation syndrome: a newly recognized disorder with systemic clinical manifestations. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, 128(1), 147-152.e2