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Whole blood donation and iron health

Whole blood is rich in red cells that contain haemoglobin, a protein that carries oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. A key component of haemoglobin is iron. Iron is an important dietary mineral and is essential for your body to function normally.

When you donate whole blood you lose a significant amount of iron, about 200-250mg with each donation. Over time this may lead to decreasing stores of iron in your body.

If the amount of iron in your body falls too low, you may become iron deficient. This may lead to:

  • Tiredness
  • Difficulty concentrating and
  • Low haemoglobin levels (anaemia).

We check your haemoglobin before each donation. A low haemoglobin level can be related to iron deficiency. If your haemoglobin level is low you will be deferred from donating and we will send a sample of your blood to our laboratory for a ferritin (iron) test. We will let you know the results of your haemoglobin and ferritin tests by mail in approximately two weeks and recommend that you see your doctor if one or both of these are low.

Blood donors should aim to have a healthy dietary intake of iron-rich foods to replace the iron loss associated with donation and to help prevent iron deficiency and anaemia. Learn more in the brochure Why haemoglobin and iron are important.

If you are planning to become pregnant it is especially important that you build and maintain healthy iron stores to support the increased iron requirements of pregnancy.

If you have any concerns about your iron levels, or want to know more about whether iron supplements may be suitable for your situation, we recommend that you consult your general practitioner.

What does research show about iron in blood donors?

Research in blood donors shows some groups are more at risk of iron deficiency. These groups include teenagers, women of childbearing age and frequent whole blood donors. Research also shows that an iron-rich diet may not be sufficient to maintain iron balance for all donors.

The Blood Service is currently conducting two major studies to help us understand if taking a short course of iron supplements after whole blood donation is acceptable and beneficial to female whole blood donors aged 18-45 years:

The READ Study is being conducted in New South Wales and is investigating the benefits and acceptability of providing donors with education on the use of suitable iron supplements after donation.

The DIRECT Study is being conducted in South Australia and is investigating the benefits and acceptability of providing donors with a short course of iron to take after each whole blood donation.

The results of the studies will be available in mid-2016. We hope to understand how beneficial these programs have been in helping donors restore their iron levels after donation and whether these programs are acceptable to blood donors.