Iron Info for Frequent Donors

Iron and Blood Donation

Donating a unit of whole blood, double red cells, or platelets removes iron from your body. You need iron to make new red blood cells. Losing iron through blood donation may affect your health.

The American Red Cross now recommends that individuals who give blood frequently should take a multivitamin with iron or an iron-only supplement to replace the iron lost through blood donation. Before taking a multivitamin with iron or an iron-only supplement, you should consult with your health-care provider.

Am I a frequent blood donor?

If you fall into one of the following groups then you are considered a frequent donor:

  • Women under the age of 50 who donate two or more units of red blood cells or made at least 10 platelet donations in the past year
  •  Women 50 or older who donate three or more units of red blood cells or made at least 15 platelet donations in the past year
  • Men who donate three or more units of red blood cells or made at least 15 platelet donations in the past year

Note: A whole blood donation is one unit of red blood cells; a double red cell donation is two units of red blood cells. For example, a man who gives two double red cell donations (four units) a year is a frequent blood donor.

I am a frequent blood donor. What can I do to maintain my iron level?

  • Eat a healthy, well-balanced diet containing foods high in vitamin C and rich in iron
  • Take a multivitamin with iron or an iron-only supplement to replace the iron lost through blood donation
  • Discuss your iron level, how often you donate blood and if you should consider taking an iron supplement with your health-care provider

How much iron do I lose when I donate blood?

You lose about 220-250 mg of iron each time you donate a unit of blood. A double red cell donation causes you to lose about twice as much (about 470 mg of iron). It usually takes three to 15 weeks for your body to replace the iron lost with blood donation, depending on how much iron your body has before donation and whether you take an iron-only supplement or multivitamin containing iron.

If I was allowed to give blood today, does that mean that I have enough iron?

Prior to donating, the Red Cross tests your hemoglobin level. This measures the amount of the hemoglobin protein in your red blood cells. It does not measure the level of iron in your body. Even if you qualify for blood donation, you may have low iron reserves.

Why isn’t a good diet enough?

Eating a healthy, well-balanced diet is important for everyone. Studies show that simply eating iron-rich foods may not be enough to replace all the iron lost with blood donation.

How might low iron levels affect me?

Many people with low iron levels feel fine and have no symptoms, but low iron levels may cause:

  • Anemia
  • Tiredness and irritability
  • Reduced endurance during exercise or everyday activities
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Pica, a craving to chew things such as ice or chalk

Should frequent blood donors replace the iron they lose with each blood donation?

Yes, the Red Cross now recommends that frequent blood donors should take a multivitamin containing iron or an iron-only supplement to replace the iron lost with each donation. You should discuss taking a multivitamin with iron or an iron-only supplement with your health-care provider before adding it to your routine.

Where can I get iron supplements?

Iron is available as an over-the-counter medicine at drug stores, health food stores and grocery stores without a prescription, as well as through the Internet. Prices and doses vary greatly.

What kind of iron supplement should I take?

Iron supplements come in different formulations, with different characteristics. Some examples are ferrous sulfate, ferrous gluconate, ferrous fumarate, or carbonyl iron. These formulations contain different amounts of iron and it is important to look at the amount of “elemental iron” available for absorption. The Red Cross recommends that you discuss the option right for you with your health-care provider.

How much iron should I take?

Discuss this with your health-care provider. For frequent donors, about 18mg of iron per day for 60 days has been shown to reduce iron deficiency and maintain hemoglobin levels. This is the amount of iron in a typical multivitamin containing iron. Do not take more than the dosage recommended by your health-care provider as high dosages may be harmful.

Why doesn't a single dose of iron replace what I lose from blood donation?

There is a limit to how much iron your body can absorb each day (about 2-4 mg/day). Taking larger doses of iron can result in side effects.

Will I have side effects from taking iron?

Iron supplements may cause side effects, which are described on the product package. Side effects may include symptoms like constipation, diarrhea, or upset stomach. If the symptoms are bothersome, you may need to take a lower dose over a longer period of time, or take the iron supplement with food. Discuss any side effects or alternatives treatments with your health-care provider.

Can iron supplements be harmful?

Accidental ingestion of iron by children can result in their death. Keep all iron-containing products out of the reach of children. Individually-packaged pills and childproof bottles may prevent poisoning. In case of suspected ingestion, seek medical attention or call a poison control center immediately. Iron supplements may be harmful to people with iron overload syndromes such as hereditary hemochromatosis.

Iron supplements may mask other health conditions that are more serious such as gastrointestinal (GI) disease. Discuss with your health-care provider whether you should have a GI examination before you take iron supplements.