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What Does Ferritin Level Tell You?

Medically Reviewed on 1/4/2022

Ferritin tests are used to diagnose iron deficiency or iron overload, because it is an indirect marker of the overall amount of iron that is stored in the body

Ferritin is a protein that stores iron, releasing it when the body needs it. Ferritin tests are used to diagnose iron deficiency or iron overload, because it is an indirect marker of the overall amount of iron that is stored in the body.

Ferritin is a cytoplasmic protein found in most tissues, but it is found in the highest concentrations in the liver cells and cells of the immune system. It keeps iron soluble and nontoxic and helps protect the body from iron deficiency and iron overload by acting as a physical barrier.

When there is an increased demand to produce red blood cells, the body will signal cells to release ferritin. After that, the ferritin binds to a protein called transferrin. Transferrin transports ferritin to the cells that make new red blood cells.

How does the ferritin test work?

Only a small amount of blood is needed for the ferritin test to accurately evaluate ferritin levels. In rare cases, the doctor may request the patient to stay on an empty stomach for at least 10-12 hours before blood sample collection.

The test may involve a simple process similar to that of other blood tests. The blood sample is collected using a syringe and sent to a lab for analysis.

What are normal and abnormal ferritin levels?

There are specific limits for blood ferritin levels; levels below or above are considered abnormal. Ferritin results are typically given in nanograms per milliliter (ng/mL).

The normal range for ferritin levels are as follows:

  • 20-250 ng/mL for adult men
  • 10-120 ng/mL for adult women ages 18-39
  • 12-263 ng/mL for women 40 years and older
  • 25-200 ng/mL for newborns
  • 200-600 ng/mL for infants 1 month old
  • 50-200 ng/mL for babes ages 2-5 months
  • 7-140 ng/mL for children ages 6 months-15 years

What causes low ferritin levels in the body?

Low ferritin levels are usually caused by iron deficiency indicating anemia. Without enough iron, the body is unable to produce required levels of hemoglobin, which is a component of the red blood cells that allows them to carry oxygen. If iron intake has reduced, it may lead to breathing difficulty or severe tiredness.

Other conditions that could cause low ferritin levels include:

  • Excessive menstrual bleeding in women
  • Stomach conditions that cause impaired intestinal absorption
  • Internal bleeding

What causes high ferritin levels in the body?

Ferritin levels that are higher than usual indicate that the body is storing too much iron, which can cause hemochromatosis. Hemochromatosis is a hereditary disorder in which there is an extreme accumulation of iron in the body leading to iron overload.

In people with hereditary hemochromatosis, too much iron is absorbed in the intestines. Because the body cannot increase iron excretion, consumed iron keeps getting accumulated.

Ferritin is also an immune system reactant. When the body has inflammation, ferritin levels increase. In such cases, additional testing may be necessary to figure out what is causing it.

Causes of high ferritin levels in the body include:

  • Hemochromatosis
  • Hyperthyroidism
  • Hodgkin’s lymphoma (cancer that affects the lymphatic system)
  • History of several blood transfusions
  • Alcohol abuse
  • Excessive amount of iron supplements
  • Porphyria
  • Rheumatoid arthritis or similar inflammatory condition
  • Hepatitis (liver disease)
  • Type II diabetes
  • Leukemia

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What are the effects of high or low ferritin levels in the body?

The foremost function of ferritin is to regulate iron availability. It makes iron available for absorption and maintains iron homeostasis, protecting fats and proteins in the body from iron toxicity. If blood ferritin levels are below normal, it means the body’s iron reserves are depleted, and the person may have iron deficiency and anemia as a result

However, if ferritin levels in the blood are too high, it means there is a condition that causes the body to accumulate too much iron. This could also be a symptom of liver disease, rheumatoid arthritis, other inflammatory diseases, or hyperthyroidism. Some studies report that high blood ferritin levels may be caused by certain types of cancer or may even be used to monitor the severity of COVID-19 infection in some cases.

If a person shows any symptoms of anemia or low blood oxygen levels, it may be due to abnormal ferritin levels. However, other underlying symptoms may also require a ferritin test.

What are the signs and symptoms of high ferritin levels?

Signs of very high ferritin levels include:

  • Poor sex drive
  • Hair loss throughout the body
  • Stomach pain
  • Lethargy
  • Heart problems
  • Joint soreness/stiffness
  • Weight loss
  • Unexplained lack of energy, weakness, and exhaustion 

Men with hemochromatosis can accumulate up to 20 grams of body iron by 40-50 years of age. The excess iron gets stored in the joints, liver, testicles, and heart, which causes damage to these organs.

Women with hemochromatosis accumulate iron at a slower rate than men since they lose iron due to menstruation. Therefore, they may develop symptoms of organ damage due to iron overload 10 years later than men.

What are the signs and symptoms of low ferritin levels?

Signs of low ferritin levels include:

  • Inexplicable sickness
  • Ringing sensation in the ears
  • Irritability
  • Leg ache
  • Exhaustion
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Difficulty breathing and fast heartbeat
  • Pallor

If low levels of ferritin go unnoticed, it can lead to heart failure due to lack of oxygen in the blood. In rare circumstances, a person may experience chest pain or symptoms of chest discomfort, leg pain, etc. and needs immediate medical care.

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Medically Reviewed on 1/4/2022

References

Image Source: iStock Images

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2893236/

https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?contenttypeid=167&contentid=ferritin_blood

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23965472/

https://clinmedjournals.org/articles/jfmdp/journal-of-family-medicine-and-disease-prevention-jfmdp-4-078.php?jid=jfmdp

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