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.
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:
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.
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.
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)
Low Ferritin Levels
A lower-than-normal ferritin level can indicate that you have an iron deficiency, which is when you do not consume enough iron in your daily diet. Another condition that affects iron levels is anemia, which is when you do not have enough red blood cells for iron to attach to. Additional conditions include:
- excessive menstrual bleeding
- stomach conditions that affect intestinal absorption
- internal bleeding
High Ferritin Levels
Ferritin levels that are too high can indicate a number of conditions. One example is hemochromatosis, which is when your body absorbs too much iron. Other conditions that cause high iron levels include:
- rheumatoid arthritis
- liver disease
- adult Still’s disease
- type 2 diabetes
- Hodgkin’s lymphoma
- iron poisoning
- frequent blood transfusions
Your doctor will likely recommend additional blood tests to determine the exact reason your ferritin levels are low.
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.