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Ferritin blood test

What is ferritin?

Ferritin is a protein complex, found principally in the intestines, spleen and liver. Its function is to bind with iron.

Who is offered a ferritin blood test?

Patients reporting symptoms of iron deficiency anaemia where initial blood tests show normal haemoglobin or red blood cell levels. Around 70% of our total iron store is found in haemoglobin but around 25% is stored as ferritin. So a drop in ferritin levels is a significant early indicator of depleting iron levels.

What are the symptoms of anaemia?

Symptoms include lethargy, tiredness and breathlessness. Less commonly, patients may report tinnitus ( ringing in the ears), headache, a disturbed sense of taste, itching, hair loss and difficulty swallowing.

How does a ferritin test differ from an anaemia test?

The most common test for anaemia is a full blood count, which measures the levels of haemoglobin in the blood. This, in turn, indicates iron levels. A normal result isn’t always conclusive though, and patients with normal haemoglobin levels may be in the early stages of developing anaemia. This is because the condition develops gradually with the earliest indicator being low levels of ferritin. So a ferritin blood test can give an early indication of iron deficiency anaemia in cases where a haemoglobin blood test comes back with a normal result. It’s only when lack of iron is severe that haemoglobin levels are affected.

How is the test performed?

It’s a simple blood test where a sample is taken from a vein in your arm.

What if my ferritin levels are low?

Low ferritin levels indicate iron deficiency anaemia, so the treatment is usually to increase consumption of iron-rich foods and often to take prescribed iron supplements until your iron levels are restored. The most commonly prescribed supplement is ferrous sulphate, taken in tablet form two or three times a day. If this causes side effects, which can include nausea or sickness, stomach pain, constipation or diarrhoea, you may be prescribed ferrous gluconate instead. This supplement is less concentrated, so you may have to take it for longer before iron levels in your body are restored.

What caused my ferritin levels to drop?

Your doctor will also want to get to the root cause of your anaemia. In women, this could be due to heavy periods or pregnancy. In pregnancy, the body needs to supply iron to baby as well as mum, so extra stores are needed. Other causes include bleeding from the stomach caused by NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) or a diet lacking in iron. Whatever the cause, your doctor will discuss with you steps you can take to prevent the condition from recurring.

WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on July 22, 2013

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