Ferritin is a blood protein that stores iron. When a doctor needs to check a person’s iron levels, they may order a ferritin blood test. Low levels can indicate anemia, while high levels may be a sign of hemochromatosis or another health condition.

Low ferritin levels may indicate an iron deficiency. While not every case of anemia is due to iron deficiency, iron deficiency anemia is the most common type.

High ferritin levels can occur with an iron overload disorder such as hemochromatosis, which causes the body to store too much iron. Hyperthyroidism, liver disease, and certain cancers are linked to elevated ferritin levels.

Treatment options will depend on why the ferritin levels are too high or too low. Treating the underlying condition may improve the ferritin levels.

This article looks at ferritin blood tests, what the different ferritin blood levels may mean, and how to increase or decrease ferritin levels.

A note about sex and gender

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

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The ferritin blood test measures how much iron is stored in a person’s body.

Ferritin is a protein that stores iron inside cells. Iron plays a critical role in several metabolic processes including carrying oxygen throughout the body and moving electrons within cells.

When a person shows signs of having too much or too little iron, a ferritin blood test can help diagnose or rule out certain medical conditions.

These conditions include:

Additionally, doctors may order ferritin blood tests to monitor chronic health conditions, such as autoimmune diseases, kidney disease, and cancer.

Other tests relating to iron include:

  • Complete blood count (CBC): Tests the levels of all parts of the blood, as well as the size of cells.
  • Hemoglobin: Test levels of hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body.
  • Hematocrit: Measures the proportion of red blood cells in the blood.
  • Total iron-binding capacity (TIBC): Checks how well iron attaches to proteins in the blood.
  • HFE gene test: Looks for the genetic features of hemochromatosis.
  • Zinc protoporphyrin: Detects iron deficiency and lead toxicity.

Someone with low ferritin levels, or low iron levels, may experience:

Iron deficiency anemia may have such symptoms. However, this is true for many other health conditions. Anyone with these symptoms should see a doctor for evaluation.

People measure ferritin levels in nanograms per milliliter (ng/mL) of blood. Test results may come back as normal, low, or high.

The following sections discuss what these results mean.

Normal ferritin levels

“Normal” levels can vary slightly from one lab to another, and a person should confirm what “normal” means with their doctor.

For reference, one source lists the ranges for normal ferritin levels as follows:

Groupng/mL
Adult males24–336
Adult females24–307
Newborns25–200
Infants aged 1 month200–600
Infants aged 2–5 months50–200
Children aged 6 months to 15 years7–140

Low ferritin levels

Low ferritin levels suggest an iron deficiency.

The body needs iron to make hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that transfers oxygen from the lungs around the body.

Iron is also necessary for:

  • growth and development
  • metabolism
  • the production of hormones

An iron deficiency can occur with or without anemia. However, it is the most common cause of anemia.

Iron-deficiency anemia can cause the following:

  • dizziness
  • fatigue
  • chest pain
  • irregular heartbeat
  • pale skin
  • shortness of breath
  • weakness
  • cold hands and feet

However, mild anemia may not produce any symptoms.

High ferritin levels

High ferritin levels can indicate a person has too much iron in their blood.

A person with very high iron levels may experience:

Several health conditions may lead to increased ferritin and iron levels, including:

  • hyperthyroidism
  • hemochromatosis, an inherited disorder
  • alcohol use disorder
  • liver disease
  • porphyria, a group of disorders that affect the production of heme, a component of hemoglobin and impact the nervous system or skin
  • certain cancers, including leukemia and Hodgkin lymphoma

Other factors that can lead to high iron levels are blood transfusions and dietary factors, including the use of supplements.

A person with high ferritin levels will need more tests to identify the underlying cause and help doctors determine the best course of treatment.

If a person has low ferritin or iron levels, their doctor will need to evaluate how severe the deficiency is and identify the underlying cause.

If low iron levels result from bleeding, the doctor will address this problem.

They may also advise the individual on boosting their iron levels, for example, through dietary choices.

Some foods that provide iron include:

  • lean red meat
  • oysters
  • lentils, beans, and tofu
  • raisins
  • eggs
  • fortified breakfast cereals
  • dark leafy greens, including spinach, kale, and broccoli

Some foods and drinks can affect iron absorption.

For example, supplements and foods rich in vitamin C can help increase iron absorption. However, tannic acid, found in tea, can make iron absorption difficult. Phytates, present in some pulses, can also reduce iron absorption.

A doctor may recommend iron supplements to increase ferritin levels.

People can take oral iron supplements at home. However, they should only use them under the supervision of a doctor.

In severe cases of anemia, they may require treatment with intravenous iron.

Typically, a person’s doctor will order follow-up blood tests. If levels do not return to the accepted range, the doctor may recommend more testing to determine the cause of the deficiency or suggest a different treatment plan.

Which foods can help boost iron levels?

A person with high ferritin levels may have high iron levels. Treatment for high iron levels depends on the underlying cause.

Treatment for iron overload disorders, such as primary hemochromatosis, is usually with phlebotomy. This is a regular treatment to remove iron-rich blood from the body.

The amount of blood the doctor removes, and how frequently they remove it, will depend on factors such as a person’s age, health, and ferritin levels.

Sometimes, doctors use iron chelation therapy. This involves an oral or injected medicine that removes excess iron from the body. Typically, iron chelation therapy is not the first option for hemochromatosis. However, it may be suitable for some people.

People with other conditions that cause high ferritin levels may require additional or different treatments.

Generally, a ferritin blood test is a quick, simple procedure.

As with other blood tests, a healthcare professional will:

  • Wrap a band around the person’s arm to make their veins more visible.
  • Clean an area of skin with an antiseptic swap.
  • Insert a small needle into the vein and collect a blood sample into a vial.

After collecting the blood sample, the healthcare professional will apply a dressing and remove the band.

Ferritin tests typically do not usually cause major side effects. The person may feel a stinging sensation when the needle goes in or out, and there may be some bruising and bleeding.

The person should contact their doctor if they experience:

  • major bruising
  • excessive bleeding
  • a feeling of faintness or light-headedness
  • signs of infection

A person’s doctor will advise them on how to prepare for a ferritin blood test.

A person may need to fast before the test for a specific period of time leading up to the test. This may give the doctor the most accurate measure of iron stores.

Some at-home iron tests can check iron levels. However, there are pros and cons.

The most obvious benefit to at-home iron tests is convenience. A person does not have to make an appointment or get a referral from their doctor. Many companies use accredited laboratories to process the results, and some provide results online or via an app within a couple of days.

Additionally, some companies accept payment through health savings accounts (HSAs) and flexible spending accounts (FSAs).

On the other hand, not all at-home iron tests are actually at home. Some companies require people to visit an affiliate laboratory location for the procedure.

Plus, some at-home iron tests can be expensive, particularly if the company does not accept HSAs or FSAs. If the person’s insurance provider does not cover the test–the out-of-pocket cost might hurt.

A person should discuss with a doctor:

  • if they need a test
  • where to have the test
  • what the follow-up should be

There is a lack of research confirming the safety and accuracy of at-home ferritin tests.

In fact, a 2021 review concluded that, overall, ferritin tests “may be reasonably accurate” in diagnosing low iron levels.

A ferritin blood test measures ferritin levels in a person’s body. Ferritin stores iron, so this test gives an indication of the individual’s iron levels.

The test is typically fairly quick and does not require any special preparations, although a doctor may ask the person to fast.

High or low results may indicate an underlying issue, such as iron deficiency anemia, hemochromatosis, or some types of cancer.

Additional testing may be necessary to confirm a diagnosis and help formulate a treatment plan.