Test Quick Guide

Hemoglobin is an iron-rich protein found in Red Blood Cells (RBC), giving them their unique red color. It is primarily responsible for carrying oxygen from your lungs to the tissues and organs of your body.

A hemoglobin test is often used to detect anemia, which is a deficiency of RBC that can have adverse health effects. While hemoglobin can be tested on its own, it’s more often tested as part of a complete blood count (CBC) test that also measures levels of other types of blood cells.

About the Test

Purpose of the test

A hemoglobin test is used to find out how much hemoglobin is in your blood. It is most often used to determine if you have low levels of RBC, a condition known as anemia.

In addition to identifying anemia, a hemoglobin test can be involved in the diagnosis of other health problems like liver and kidney disease, blood disorders, malnutrition, some kinds of cancer, and heart and lung conditions.

If you have been treated for anemia or other conditions that can affect hemoglobin levels, a hemoglobin test may be ordered to check your response to treatment and monitor the progression of your overall health.

What does the test measure?

A hemoglobin test measures the volume of the protein hemoglobin found in your RBC. It is measured in grams per deciliter (g/dL) of blood or grams per liter (g/L) of blood.

Hemoglobin is one component of RBC and gives these cells their distinct red color. A main function of hemoglobin is to carry oxygen to cells throughout the body. It also has a role in transporting carbon dioxide from the organs and tissues back to the lungs where it can be exhaled.

When measured as part of a CBC test, other blood components may be measured including:

  • White blood cells (WBCs), which are involved in immune function
  • Platelets that enable the blood to clot when needed
  • Hematocrit, the proportion of blood made up of RBC

When should I get this test?

Hemoglobin is one indicator of how much oxygen your body may be getting. Levels can also reflect whether you have enough iron in your blood. Accordingly, your provider may order a CBC to measure hemoglobin if you are experiencing signs and symptoms of low oxygen or iron. These symptoms can include:

  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath during physical activity
  • Dizziness
  • Skin that is paler or yellower than usual
  • Headaches
  • Irregular heartbeat

Although less common, high hemoglobin levels can also cause health problems. A hemoglobin test may be ordered if you have signs of abnormally high hemoglobin levels, such as:

  • Disturbed vision
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Slurred speech
  • Reddening of the face

Your provider may also order a hemoglobin test if you have been diagnosed with or are suspected of having:

  • Blood disorders like sickle cell disease or thalassemia
  • Diseases affecting the lungs, liver, kidneys, or cardiovascular system
  • Significant bleeding from trauma or surgery
  • Poor nutrition or a diet that is low in vitamins and minerals, specifically iron
  • Significant long-term infection
  • Cognitive impairment, especially in the elderly
  • Certain types of cancer

You most often see results for a hemoglobin test as part of a CBC test, a common collection of tests often ordered by a provider to assess your overall health. For this reason, having a hemoglobin test does not necessarily mean your provider suspects a health problem.

Finding a Hemoglobin Test

How can I get a Hemoglobin test?

A hemoglobin test is most commonly conducted by a licensed professional in a health care setting. It is usually part of a CBC test done in a doctor’s office, clinic, laboratory, or hospital. The test may be performed with a blood draw or a fingerstick test.

A hemoglobin test is normally prescribed by a doctor, so talk with your health care provider if you have symptoms that could be related to abnormal hemoglobin levels.

Can I take the test at home?

There are options for at-home hemoglobin testing. At-home tests use one or more drops of blood to provide an estimation of hemoglobin levels. The drops of blood are obtained by pricking your finger with a tiny needle.

At-home hemoglobin tests may produce values that are less accurate than laboratory testing, especially for certain patients. For the most accurate results, hemoglobin tests should be administered by trained laboratory personnel.

Your doctor can help you understand if at-home testing is appropriate in your case, and never use at-home tests in place of consultation with your doctor about your health.

How much does the test cost?

Hemoglobin tests are usually part of a CBC. The cost for a CBC panel depends on whether you have health insurance and whether it covers the test. Other factors that can affect the cost include where your blood is drawn and the charges for the laboratory where your provider sends your blood sample.

Check directly with your doctor or your insurance provider to find out about expected costs, including any copays or deductibles.

Taking a Hemoglobin Test

Hemoglobin is measured by taking a blood sample. A hemoglobin test is most often part of a blood draw ordered and conducted by a medical professional in a health care setting.

In infants, hemoglobin tests may be conducted by pricking the heel or finger of the child.

Before the test

Unless specified by your provider, no special preparation is needed for a hemoglobin test. In some instances, hemoglobin is tested along with other blood tests. When you are getting more than one blood test, your provider may ask you to not eat anything for a certain amount of time prior to your test. If you have questions or concerns about any test preparation, contact your health care provider for detailed instructions.

During the test

Most hemoglobin tests involve a blood draw from a vein inside your elbow or at the top of your hand. The steps for taking a blood draw include:

  1. The area is cleansed with an antiseptic wipe.
  2. A band, called a tourniquet, is placed around your arm to increase the pressure in your arm and make your vein more visible and easier to access with a needle.
  3. A needle is placed in your vein. A test tube is attached to the needle and is filled with blood. You may feel a pinch or a little pain, which may result in mild bruising or some bleeding.
  4. If you are getting other blood tests in addition to a hemoglobin test you may have more than one tube of blood drawn.

For young children, testing may involve a blood sample taken from the heel or finger. Those tests follow these steps:

  1. The finger or heel is cleaned with alcohol or an antiseptic wipe.
  2. The finger or heel is stuck with a small needle, resulting in 2-3 drops of blood.
  3. The first drops of blood are wiped away.
  4. As the next drop of blood is produced, a test strip is prepared for analysis.
  5. The blood is applied to the test strip so that it can be analyzed on-site.

After the test

Once blood is drawn, the health care provider may apply pressure to the puncture site with a cotton swab. If you are prone to bleeding, they may place an adhesive bandage over the cotton swab to maintain the pressure.

After any blood draw test, such as hemoglobin, it’s important to watch out for dizziness or lightheadedness. Your provider may want you to stay seated for a few minutes until they can determine that you are safe to get up and walk and/or drive.

Other than possible lightheadedness, side effects from a blood draw may include slight bruising at the puncture site.

Hemoglobin Test Results

Receiving test results

Results from a hemoglobin test are often available within a few days after you have had your blood drawn. You may receive results by mail or electronically. Your doctor’s office may also contact you to discuss your test results.

Interpreting test results

The numbers associated with your result are in grams per deciliter or g/dL. Hemoglobin reference ranges may vary depending on age and sex.

The high and low values of a normal test result, called the reference range, may differ depending on the laboratory and the methods used to conduct the test. For this reason, it is essential to look at the reference range listed on your test report.

An example of potential reference range, provided by the American Board of Internal Medicine, is listed in the following tables:

Hemoglobin Reference Range for Adults

Hemoglobin Reference Range Newborns and Infants

While these provide an example of a potential reference range, your results are only considered abnormal based on the range used by the specific laboratory that performed the test.

Because hemoglobin is affected by many factors, it is important that you discuss your results with your provider if you have any concerns. Only your doctor can clarify if your hemoglobin test results are normal for your situation.

If hemoglobin levels are low, it can be a sign of anemia. There are many potential causes of anemia including blood loss, nutritional deficiencies, and many other conditions.

High hemoglobin can also be a sign of underlying health problems including conditions affecting the lung and heart. Dehydration, smoking, living at a high altitude, and some genetic conditions can also lead to high levels of hemoglobin.

Abnormal hemoglobin levels are not a diagnosis of any of these conditions. Instead, your hemoglobin levels are evaluated in the context of your symptoms, other blood counts, and additional test results to diagnose an underlying cause of high or low levels of hemoglobin.

Abnormal hemoglobin test results may or may not require follow-up testing. Hemoglobin is often evaluated alongside other components of a CBC to look for signs of disease or monitor health conditions.

If they feel it is necessary, your doctor may order additional testing if you have low hemoglobin. Often follow-up testing aims to evaluate the cause or causes of anemia. Testing for anemia may include tests such as a reticulocyte count, a renal panel, a liver panel, hemolysis testing, or a blood smear.

Follow-up testing is based on your symptoms, medical history, and the results of other tests. For questions about follow-up testing, make sure to speak with your doctor.

The following questions may be helpful when reviewing your hemoglobin test results with your doctor:

  • Was my hemoglobin level abnormal?
  • If it was abnormal, do you consider that level to be concerning in my case?
  • Are abnormal hemoglobin levels something I can change?
  • Do I need to monitor my hemoglobin levels at home?
  • Based on my hemoglobin levels, is there any other testing that is needed?


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