Iron Toxicity Workup

Updated: Sep 02, 2021
  • Author: Clifford S Spanierman, MD; Chief Editor: Michael A Miller, MD  more...
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Laboratory Studies

The workup for iron toxicity includes the following studies:

  • Serum  iron
  • Glucose
  • Complete blood count (CBC)
  • Serum lactate
  • Arterial blood gas (ABG) - To assess for metabolic acidosis
  • Serum electrolytes - For anion gap calculation
  • Kidney function tests
  • Liver function tests (LFTs)
  • Coagulation studies
  • Lipase and amylase levels - Occasional patients experience pancreatic injury
  • Pregnancy test in women of childbearing age
  • Blood type and cross-matching
  • Ferritin levels - Helpful for diagnosing chronic toxicity; levels may exceed 1000 mcg/L

For serum iron measurement, samples should be drawn at least 4 hours postingestion, to allow levels to reach steady state; however, levels drawn more than 6 hours after ingestion may underestimate toxicity because of ferritin binding and redistribution of iron. With extended-release products, consider a level at 8 hours. The significance of results is as follows:

  • In adults, levels may not correlate well with the clinical presentation
  • Mild-to-moderate toxicity generally manifests at levels of 350-500 mcg/dL
  • Persistently symptomatic patients with serum iron levels higher than 350 mcg/dL should be admitted
  • Hepatotoxicity usually is observed at levels higher than 500 mcg/dL
  • Levels higher than 800 mcg/dL are associated with severe toxicity
  • Patients with serum iron levels higher than 1000 mcg/dL should be in a facility that can provide age-appropriate intensive care

Glucose levels exceeding 150 mg/dL are common with severe iron toxicity. Monitoring glucose levels is important because hepatic dysfunction may cause hypoglycemia.

On the CBC, a white blood cell (WBC) count of more than 15,000/mm3 is associated with severe iron poisoning. A CBC is also helpful because anemia from blood loss may develop.

LFTs are indicated because hepatic dysfunction is common in severe iron poisoning. The liver is the first organ outside of the GI tract to receive a large iron load, which enters through the portal blood supply.

Electrolyte measurements and kidney function tests assist in calculation of the anion gap (see the Anion Gap calculator) and detection of electrolyte abnormalities and the presence of prerenal azotemia. Iron toxicity is one of the causes of acidosis with an increased anion gap, as noted in the mnemonic MUDPILES:

  • Methanol
  • Uremia
  • Diabetic ketoacidosis, alcoholic ketoacidosis
  • Paraldehyde
  • Iron, isoniazid
  • Lactic (eg, from carbon monoxide, cyanide)
  • Ethylene glycol
  • Salicylates

Imaging Studies

Iron tablets remain radiopaque for a few hours postingestion, and may be visible on a kidneys, ureters, bladder (KUB) film. However, the absence of radiopacities does not rule out a significant or even potentially lethal ingestion.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has become widely accepted as the primary method for noninvasively quantifying liver iron concentration. [8] Annual measurements of liver iron concentration by MRI has been recommended for all patients receiving long-term chronic transfusion therapy, along with MRI measurement of cardiac iron in patients at high risk of cardiac iron deposition. [8, 9]  

MRI measurement of liver iron has also been suggested as a surrogate marker for total body iron in dialysis patients, who routinely receive parenteral iron in conjunction with erythropoiesis-stimulating agents for treatment of anemia. However, while these findings challenge the current reliance on transferrin saturation and serum ferritin levels as markers of iron load, the clinical relevance of MRI for this patient population remains to be determined. [10]