It’s a common challenge, and it’s not fun when it happens to you.

The person performing your donor screening says those the dreaded words, “I’m sorry, but you can’t donate today. Your hemoglobin is too low.”


You might be asking yourself, “What on earth is my hemoglobin level? And why is it preventing me from donating? ”

First things first: what is a hemoglobin?

Hemoglobin is a protein in your body that contains iron and carries oxygen to the tissues in your body. We measure it using that tricky little finger prick that everyone loves to hate.

The blood taken prior to donation provides a hemoglobin value.  You were deferred because your blood count (hemoglobin value) was below the lower limit of acceptability to donate, which is 13 gm/dl for men, and 12.5 gm/dl for women. “Low” hemoglobin is one of the most common reasons our donors are deferred from blood donation.  This hemoglobin value does not necessarily indicate that you are anemic.

What causes low hemoglobin?

Causes for low hemoglobin in women:

The most common cause of low hemoglobin in women who are premenopausal, is iron deficiency caused by menstrual blood loss. Women of childbearing age have high iron requirements because of the extra iron needed for menstruation and pregnancy. Eating iron-rich foods may be sufficient to correct iron deficiency in some individuals; however, some women will need to take oral iron supplements in order to increase their hemoglobin enough to donate blood.

If you are a post-menopausal woman and not donating three or more times per year, your hemoglobin may still be within the normal range for women, but not high enough to donate blood. Please note that the lower end of normal range for non-African-American women is 11.3 gm/dl and for African-American women is 10.5 gm/dl. If the test performed today indicated that your hemoglobin is below normal range, you may need to see your personal physician for further testing to determine the cause of your low hemoglobin.

Causes for low hemoglobin in men:

If you are not donating three or more times per year, your deferral today indicates that you may have a medical condition which is causing your low hemoglobin.  In men, a hemoglobin below 13 gm/dl is considered anemic. Your personal physician can perform additional testing to confirm the cause of your low hemoglobin and determine its cause.

Why does a low hemoglobin level mean you can’t donate today?

In short, it’s for your own safety. If we were to draw blood after discovering your hemoglobin level was low, we would be putting you at risk of developing anemia.

Because red blood cells carry oxygen through your body, and because we remove some of those red blood cells (and their iron stores) when you make a donation, we have a duty to make sure you have enough red blood cells circulating to stay healthy after blood donation. If we didn’t, you could end up not feeling well after donating blood. Or worse yet, you could be putting yourself at a serious health risk.

So, how can you raise your hemoglobin level anyway?

Taking an iron tablet can be beneficial in helping to replace the iron lost in the process of donating blood. Multivitamins with iron generally contain small amounts of iron, but can be sufficient if taken daily. There are also a number of stronger oral iron pills available over the counter at most drug stores. These pills replace the lost iron more rapidly and are generally less expensive than multivitamins. If you choose to take an oral iron tablet, your physician or pharmacist can provide more specific information about the advantages and disadvantages of different oral iron supplements, and help you decide which may be best for you.

In addition . . .

A diet rich in iron helps promote blood regeneration. Take a look at the tips below and think about incorporating them more heavily into your diet. Include at least four iron-rich foods per day in your meal plan.

  • Eat foods high in Vitamin C with meals. Vitamin C increases iron absorption. Good sources are: citrus fruits and fruit juice, strawberries, cantaloupe, mango, kiwi, cabbage, tomatoes, green pepper, broccoli and Brussels sprouts.
  • Eat lean meats. The iron in red meat is most readily absorbed. Limit your intake of liver due to its high cholesterol content.
  • Use dried beans, peas or lentils. They are low in cost and provide iron and protein.
  • Select high iron cereals, breads and pasta products. Select those with labels that read whole grain, enriched, fortified, or essential vitamins and minerals added.
  • Tea and coffee consumption with meals can decrease iron absorption.
  • Other iron blockers include carbonates, oxalates, and phosphates. Foods that contain these iron blockers include, cranberries, rhubarb, and soda.

Lastly . . . .

Even if you’re temporarily deferred as a blood donor because of a low hemoglobin level, you should still consider trying again!  It doesn’t necessarily mean you are anemic and you may pass the next time.  Patients still need your blood.

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