A ferritin blood test helps doctors evaluate the amount of iron stored in the body. The body uses iron to make hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying protein inside red blood cells.
Iron is obtained from food and stored for use as ferritin, an iron-carrying protein. Ferritin is found mostly in the liver, but smaller amounts are also in bone marrow, the spleen, and muscles. Normally only a small amount is in the blood, but this test can still help estimate the body's total iron stores.
Stored iron is important because when iron intake is low, the body relies on ferritin to release the iron it needs. If enough iron isn't available in storage, a person will progress through several stages of iron deficiency. If the situation isn't corrected, iron deficiency can lead to anemia (a decreased amount of hemoglobin in the blood, resulting in difficulty delivering oxygen to the cells and tissues).
Most iron deficiency cases in childhood are due to low iron intake — for example, getting too few iron-rich foods (such as red meat and fortified cereals), or in bottle-fed infants, switching from iron-fortified formula to cow's milk before 12 months. Infants who are breastfed tend to get enough iron from their mothers until they're about 4-6 months old, when iron-fortified cereal is usually introduced.
Low iron also can be due to poor iron absorption in the intestine or blood loss, most commonly from heavy menstruation or gradual blood loss in the intestinal tract.
Some health conditions can result in too much iron and ferritin in the body (iron overload), such as hemochromatosis, a genetic disease in which too much iron is absorbed.
Doctors may order ferritin test when they suspect kids have too little or too much iron in their bodies. This suspicion is often based on the results of routine blood tests, such as a complete blood count, that shows low hemoglobin levels.
Other times, doctors may suspect problems with iron levels based on certain symptoms. Early symptoms of iron depletion or deficiency might be subtle. But once levels drop below a certain amount, kids might have symptoms such as fatigue, weakness, pale skin, rapid heartbeat, or dizziness. The most common symptoms of iron overload are joint pain, chronic fatigue, and abdominal pain.
Ferritin levels are a helpful first indicator of abnormal iron stores because they tend to drop or rise even before symptoms occur. They are also not as prone to dietary fluctuations as blood iron levels.
No special preparations are needed for this test. On the day of the test, it may help to have your child wear a T-shirt or short-sleeved shirt to allow easier access for the technician who will be drawing the blood.
A health professional will usually draw the blood from a vein. For an infant, the blood may be obtained by puncturing the heel with a small needle (lancet). If the blood is being drawn from a vein, the skin surface is cleaned with antiseptic and an elastic band (tourniquet) is placed around the upper arm to apply pressure and cause the veins to swell with blood. A needle is inserted into a vein (usually in the arm inside of the elbow or on the back of the hand) and blood is withdrawn and collected in a vial or syringe.
After the procedure, the elastic band is removed. Once the blood has been collected, the needle is removed and the area is covered with cotton or a bandage to stop the bleeding. Collecting the blood for the test will only take a few minutes.
Either method (heel or vein withdrawal) of collecting a blood sample is only temporarily uncomfortable and can feel like a quick pinprick. Afterward, there may be some mild bruising, which should go away in a day or so.
The blood sample will be processed by a machine. The results are usually available within 1-2 days.
The ferritin test is considered a safe procedure. However, as with many medical tests, some problems can occur with having blood drawn. These include:
Having a blood test is relatively painless. Still, many kids are afraid of needles. Explaining the test in terms your child can understand might help ease some of the fear.
Allow your child to ask the technician any questions he or she might have. Tell your child to try to relax and stay still during the procedure, as tensing muscles and moving can make it harder and more painful to draw blood. It also may help for your child to look away when the needle is being inserted into the skin.
If you have questions about the ferritin test, speak with your doctor. You also can talk to the technician before the procedure.
Reviewed by: Yamini Durani, MD
Date reviewed: July 2014
|Iron Disorders Institute Iron Disorders Institute's mission is to reduce pain, suffering, and death because of disorders such as hereditary hemochromatosis, acquired iron overload, porphyria cutanea tarda, sideroblastic anemia, thalassemia, African siderosis, iron deficiency anemia, and anemia of chronic disease.|
|American Society of Hematology This group provides information relating to blood, blood-forming tissues, and blood diseases.|
|Lab Tests Online This non-commercial site was developed by laboratory professionals to educate caregivers, patients, and patients' families about lab tests.|
|Blood Test (Video) These videos show what's involved in getting a blood test and what it's like to be the person taking the blood sample.|
|Hereditary Hemochromatosis This genetic disease causes the body to store too much iron. Over time, an iron build-up can be dangerous. Learn more about hemochromatosis.|
|Iron and Your Child Iron is an essential nutrient that is needed to make hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying component of red blood cells.|
|Anemia Anemia, one of the more common blood disorders, occurs when the number of healthy red blood cells decreases. This can result in a variety of symptoms, including fatigue and stress on all the body's organs.|
|Getting a Blood Test (Video) A blood test might sound scary, but it usually takes less than a minute. Watch what happens in this video for kids.|
|Iron-Deficiency Anemia Iron helps the body carry oxygen in the blood and plays a key role in brain and muscle function. Too little iron can lead to iron deficiency anemia. Read more here.|
|Anemia Anemia is common in teens because they undergo rapid growth spurts, when the body has a greater need for nutrients like iron. Learn about anemia, including how to lower your risk of getting it and how it's treated.|
|Blood Test: Complete Blood Count The complete blood count (CBC) is the most common blood test. It analyzes red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets.|
|Blood Test: Hemoglobin Hemoglobin is a protein in red blood cells that transports oxygen throughout the body. A hemoglobin test may be performed as part of a routine health exam, during a time of illness, or to detect anemia.|
|About Anemia What does it mean when a kid has anemia? Learn about anemia, why kids get it, and how it's treated in our article for kids.|
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