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Iron studies

3-minute read

Iron studies are blood tests that look at how much iron is in your blood and in other cells. Having either too little or too much iron can cause serious problems.

Why is there iron in the body?

Iron is an essential part of many cells in your body, including blood and muscle cells.

In particular, iron is a vital part of haemoglobin, a protein found in red blood cells that helps carry oxygen around the body.

A lack of iron can lead to your having too few red blood cells (anaemia).

Having too much iron in your body can cause damage to your heart, your liver, your pancreas and your joints.

What is being tested?

Different blood tests measure different aspects of the iron in your body.

  • A serum iron test measures how much iron you have floating freely in your blood, but by itself is not a good indicator of iron excess or deficiency.
  • A serum ferritin test measures the quantity of a protein that helps store iron in your body, and is often more reflective of how much iron you are storing.
  • A transferrin test measures how well your body transports iron in your blood. This is sometimes called a total iron-binding capacity test (TIBC).

Your doctor might ask for all these tests at the same time, or for just 1 or 2 of them.

Why would I need this test?

You might need iron studies if you have had a full blood count and it has shown you have anaemia or another problem with your red blood cells.

You might also need iron studies if your doctor thinks you have too much iron in your body. The most common causes of too much iron are:

  • haemochromatosis, which is an inherited condition
  • frequent blood transfusions
  • consuming too much iron over a long time

How to prepare for the test?

You may need to fast before some iron tests. Check with your doctor.

Understanding your results

Iron studies are not simple, and your doctor will need to look at the results in the broader context of your health. Anaemia has many causes, as does iron overload.

Iron studies can help your doctor to understand your health issues, but they don’t often provide a final answer to the questions being asked.

You will need to discuss the results with your doctor, what they mean, and what comes next.

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Last reviewed: June 2020


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