Your body relies on iron to carry oxygen to its cells. Without enough iron, your cells can starve for oxygen, causing a number of unpleasant symptoms. Too much iron can also result in uncomfortable symptoms. Both high and low iron levels may indicate a serious underlying problem.
If your doctor suspects you are experiencing an iron deficiency or an iron overload, he or she may order a ferritin test. This simple blood test measures the amount of stored iron in your body, which can give your doctor an overall picture of your iron levels.
Purpose of a Ferritin Test
Ferritin isn’t the same thing as iron in your body. Instead, ferritin is a protein that stores iron, releasing it when your body needs it. If you do not have enough ferritin in your blood or you have too much, it can give your doctor clues about your overall iron levels.
The more ferritin in your blood, the more stored iron your body has.
Your doctor may order a ferritin test if you have some of the following symptoms associated with low ferritin levels:
- unexplained fatigue
- chronic headaches
- unexplained weakness
- ringing in the ears
- leg pains
- shortness of breath
You can also have very high ferritin levels, which can cause unpleasant symptoms as well. Symptoms of excess ferritin include:
- stomach pain
- heart palpitations or chest pains
- unexplained weakness
- joint pain
- unexplained fatigue
Ferritin levels also can become elevated as a result of damage to your organs, such as the liver and spleen.
The test also can be used to monitor your overall health, particularly if you have an iron-related condition that causes you to have too much or too little iron in your blood.
How Is the Test Performed?
The ferritin test requires only a small amount of blood to accurately diagnose your ferritin levels. A healthcare professional may apply a band around your arm to help the veins in your arm become more visible.
After wiping your skin with an antiseptic swab, the provider will insert a small needle into your blood to obtain a sample.
The sample will then be transferred to the laboratory for analysis. You should not have to take any special precautions before undergoing the blood test.
Understanding Your Ferritin Blood Test Results
Your ferritin blood test results are first evaluated to see if your levels are within normal ranges. According to the Mayo Clinic, the typical ranges are:
- men: 24 to 336 nanograms per milliliter
- women: 11 to 307 nanograms per milliliter (Mayo Clinic, 2012)
What does a low ferritin level mean?
Low levels of ferritin are seen in iron deficiency. Without enough iron, the body cannot produce sufficient levels of hemoglobin, a component of red blood cells that allows them to carry oxygen. Iron deficiency anemia is the result.
Mild anemia may not produce symptoms at all. More serious cases of anemia can produce symptoms such as:
- shortness of breath,
- pale skin, and
- fast heartbeat.
What does an elevated ferritin level mean?
High levels of ferritin can be indicative of an iron storage disorder such as hemochromatosis.
Hereditary hemochromatosis is an inherited (genetic) disorder in which there is excessive accumulation of iron in the body (iron overload).
In individuals with hereditary hemochromatosis, the daily absorption of iron from the intestines is greater than the amount needed to replace losses.
Since the normal body cannot increase iron excretion, the absorbed iron accumulates in the body.
A man with hemochromatosis can accumulate 20 grams of total body iron by age 40 to 50 (the normal iron content for the body is 3-4 grams).
The excess iron deposits in the joints, liver, testicles, and heart, which causes damage to these organs, and causes signs and symptoms of hemochromatosis.
Women with hemochromatosis accumulate iron at a slower rate than men because they lose more iron than men due to iron loss frommenstruation.
Therefore, they typically develop signs and symptoms of organ damage due to excess iron 10 years later then men.
People with hereditary hemochromatosis may have no symptoms or signs (and have normal longevity), or they can have severe symptoms and signs of iron overload that include:
- sexual dysfunction,
- heart failure,
- joint pains,
- liver cirrhosis,
- diabetes mellitus,
- fatigue, and
- darkening of skin.
The symptoms arise because iron accumulates in the organs and leads to destruction and loss of normal function.
Other causes of a high ferritin level are chronic inflammatory conditions such as liver disease or rheumatoid arthritis, or some types of cancer.
Side Effects of a Ferritin Blood Test
A ferritin blood test is not associated with serious side effects because it requires obtaining a small sample of blood.
Talk to your provider, however, if you have a bleeding condition or bruise easily. You can expect some discomfort as your blood is drawn. After the test, rare side effects include:
- excess bleeding
- feeling faint or light-headed
Always notify your medical provider if you experience discomfort that seems out of the norm.