Frequent Blood Donors and the Importance of Iron

Donating blood and platelets removes iron from your body. Iron is an essential mineral that is a part of hemoglobin that helps maintain your strength and energy. Your body needs iron to make new blood cells, replacing the ones lost through blood donations.

To help maintain healthy iron levels, the American Red Cross recommends that individuals who donate blood and platelets frequently should take an iron supplement or a multivitamin with iron. Before taking an iron supplement with 18-38 mg of elemental iron or a multivitamin with 18mg of iron. Before taking an iron supplement or multivitamin, you should consult with your health-care provider.

Am I a frequent donor?

If you fall into one of these groups, you should consider yourself a frequent donor:

  • Women under the age of 50 who have donated two or more units of red blood cells or made 10 or more platelet donations in the past year
  • Women ages 50 and older who have donated three or more units of red blood cells or made 15 or more platelet donations in the past year
  • Men who have donated three or more units of red blood cells or made 15 or more platelet donations in the past year

Each blood donation is the equivalent of one unit of red blood cells, while each power red donation is the equivalent of two units of red blood cells. For example, a male who gives two power red donations in a year is considered a frequent donor.

What can I do to help maintain a healthy iron level?

Make sure you’re eating a nutritious, well-balance diet containing foods rich in iron and high in vitamin C. However, if you are a frequent donor, iron rich foods in your diet may not be enough to replenish the iron you routinely lose through blood donations.

The Red Cross recommends that you consult with your health-care provider to see if taking an iron supplement is right for you. We recommend taking a multivitamin with 18 mg of iron or an iron supplement with 18-38 mg of elemental iron for 60 days after each blood donation or 120 days after each power red donation or after frequent platelet donations.

Why isn’t eating an iron-rich diet enough to keep my iron levels healthy?

Eating a healthy, well-balanced diet is important for everyone’s overall good health. Studies have shown that although it is beneficial for your overall well-being, a healthy, well-balanced diet may not be enough to replace the iron that is lost through frequent donations.

How much iron do I lose when donating blood or platelets?

Each time you donate blood, you lose between 220-250 mg of iron. If you donate a power red, you lose twice that amount, about 470 mg of iron. It may take up to 24-30 weeks for your body to replace the iron lost through a blood donation. That time may vary, depending on what your iron level was before donating and if you take iron supplements or multivitamins with iron.

My hemoglobin was too low to donate recently. Does that mean my iron level is low?

Prior to donating, the Red Cross checks your hemoglobin level, which is a measure of the protein in your blood that carries oxygen to help nourish tissues throughout your body. Iron is a part of hemoglobin.

Hemoglobin does not measure whether or not the iron stores in your body are healthy. If you were recently asked not to donate due to your hemoglobin level, you may want to speak with your health-care provider.

How might low iron levels affect me?

It is normal for iron levels to fluctuate, even in those individuals who don’t donate blood and platelets. Many people who have low iron feel fine and have no symptoms. Symptoms may change from mild to more serious and can include: anemia, tiredness and irritability, reduced endurance during physical activity, difficulty concentrating or a craving to chew things such as ice or chalk (pica).

Should I take an iron supplement?

If you are a frequent donor, the Red Cross recommends that you consult with your health-care provider about taking a multivitamin with 18 mg of iron or an iron-only supplement with 18-38 mg of elemental iron to help replenish the iron you lose through frequent donations.

Iron supplements are available over-the-counter at a variety of retail locations including drug stores, health food stores and grocery stores. Supplements are available without a prescription. Prices and dosages will vary.

What type of iron supplement should I take?

Iron supplements come in a variety of dosages and formulations, with different characteristics. Some examples are ferrous sulfate, ferrous gluconate, ferrous fumarate and carbonyl iron. It is important to look at the amount of elemental iron available for absorption.

The Red Cross recommends that you discuss which option and dosage is best for you with your health-care provider.

How much iron should I take?

You should discuss dosage with your health-care provider. For frequent donors, about 18 mg of iron, the amount found in a typical multivitamin with iron, has been shown to reduce iron deficiency and maintain hemoglobin. It is important that you not take more than the recommended dosage as higher dosages may be harmful.

Frequent donors should take 18-38 mg of elemental iron for at least 60 days after each donation. It is important to take iron supplements or multivitamins with iron for a period of time as there is a limit to the amount of iron your body can absorb each day (2mg to 4mg per day).

Can iron supplements have side effects or be harmful?

Iron supplements can cause side effects, which are described on the packaging. Side effects can include constipation, diarrhea or an upset stomach. If these symptoms become bothersome, you should discuss alternative options such as a lower dosage with your health-care provider.

Taking iron can mask other health conditions that are more serious such as gastrointestinal (GI) disease. They may also be harmful to people who have an iron overload syndrome such as hereditary hemochromatosis. You should discuss your risk factors and health history with your health-care provider before adding iron supplements to your routine.

Although iron supplements are not usually harmful to adults when taken as directed, accidental ingestion of iron by children can be fatal. You should keep all iron-containing products out of the reach of children. In case of ingestion or emergency, seek medical assistance or call a poison control center immediately.