Donor Health: What does iron have to do with it?
Iron is in your blood. It is the “fuel” that helps red blood cells carry oxygen to your tissues. Your body naturally replaces iron after you give blood, but you might need more iron before you donate or if you give often.
We do not directly measure your iron. You get a mini-health exam when you come in to donate, and we prick your finger to test your hematocrit level. Blood has three components — red blood cells, plasma and platelets. The hematocrit test measures red blood cells because iron increases them.
You may need iron if your hematocrit is low, which happens late in iron deficiency. You can have low iron and still have a normal hematocrit level, but health problems from low iron are rare before the hematocrit falls.
Iron pills or multivitamins with iron can help. The pills work faster than foods that have a lot of iron.
18-38 mg of iron once a day for eight weeks replaces iron lost during a donation. There are no more side effects than a sugar pill.
Another way to prevent low iron is not to donate as much, but there would be less blood to save lives.
You should talk to your doctor about your needs. Iron fuels your body for the next donation, and healthy donors save more lives.
Donors most likely to need more iron:
Those who are growing
• Pregnant women
• Teenagers and young adults
Adult donors must wait 56 days between whole blood donations. Our youngest donors must wait longer:
16-18-year-old males — 84 days
16-18-year-old females — 112 days
Donors with a hematocrit level near or below the minimum required
• 38% for women
• 39% for men
• Women, ages 16-50, who give more than one whole blood/red cell donation a year
• Men and women over 50 who give more than two whole blood/red cell donations a year
• Platelet donors who give more than once a month
If you are a frequent donor or are at risk for having low stores of iron, taking an iron supplement is highly recommended. Talk to your health care provider to decide if iron is best for your health.