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Iron Deficiency Anemia

Condition Basics

What is iron deficiency anemia?

Iron deficiency anemia means that your body doesn't have the iron it needs to make enough red blood cells.

Having enough iron is important since red blood cells carry oxygen to the tissues in your body. With fewer red blood cells, your blood isn't able to carry enough oxygen to the cells in your body. This can make you feel weak and tired or dizzy.

Iron deficiency is the most common cause of anemia.

What causes it?

Iron deficiency anemia is caused by low levels of iron in the body. This can happen if you're not getting enough iron in your diet or if your body isn't absorbing enough iron. And it happens when you have prolonged bleeding, such as heavy menstrual bleeding or bleeding from stomach ulcers.

What are the symptoms?

You may not notice the symptoms of iron deficiency anemia. That's because it may develop slowly, and your symptoms may be mild. As anemia gets worse, you may feel weak and tired or dizzy. You may get headaches or feel short of breath.

How is it diagnosed?

To diagnose iron deficiency anemia, your doctor will do a physical exam and ask about your health and symptoms. Your doctor will also do blood tests. These tests may include a complete blood count to look at your red blood cells and an iron test that shows how much iron is in your blood.

How is iron deficiency anemia treated?

To treat iron deficiency anemia, your doctor will try to find the cause of the anemia and treat that problem. Your doctor can recommend ways to increase your iron levels, such as taking iron supplement pills and eating iron-rich foods. Talk to your doctor before taking iron pills.

How can you prevent it?

You can help prevent iron deficiency anemia by eating iron-rich foods every day. These include meats, vegetables, and whole grains. To help prevent anemia in babies and children, follow recommendations for feeding infants. Make sure that babies and children get enough iron. If you're pregnant, you can take prenatal vitamins that include iron.

Cause

Iron deficiency anemia is caused by low levels of iron in the body. You might have low iron levels from:

  • Blood loss, such as:
    • Heavy menstrual bleeding.
    • Bleeding inside your body. This may be caused by problems such as ulcers, hemorrhoids, or cancer. Bleeding inside the body is the most common cause of iron deficiency anemia in men and in women after menopause.
  • Not getting enough iron in food. This can happen in people who need a lot of iron, such as small children, teens, and people who are pregnant.
  • Not absorbing iron well in your body. This problem may occur if you have celiac disease or if you've had part of your stomach or small intestine removed.

Prevention

Your body needs iron to make a protein called hemoglobin. This protein is found in red blood cells. It carries oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the cells in your body. If you don't get enough iron, your body makes fewer and smaller red blood cells. As a result, your body's cells may not get enough oxygen.

Most people can get the iron their bodies need by eating enough iron-rich foods. Your doctor may advise you to take an iron supplement along with eating an iron-rich diet.

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Symptoms

Iron deficiency anemia usually develops slowly, and the symptoms may be mild. Mild anemia may not cause noticeable symptoms. If anemia is severe, symptoms may include:

  • Feeling weak and tired more easily.
  • Feeling short of breath during exercise.
  • Headache.
  • Feeling dizzy.
  • Looking more pale than usual.
  • Having a craving for ice.

Other signs may include:

  • Rapid heartbeat.
  • Brittle fingernails and toenails.
  • Cracked lips.
  • Smooth, sore tongue.
  • Muscle pain during exercise.
  • Trouble swallowing.

Babies and small children who have anemia may:

  • Be fussy.
  • Have a short attention span.
  • Grow more slowly than normal.
  • Develop certain skills, such as walking and talking, later than normal.

What Happens

Iron deficiency anemia usually develops slowly. As anemia gets worse, you may feel weak and tired or dizzy. Or you may get headaches. Your doctor will try to find the cause of the anemia and treat that problem. Most people start to feel better after treatment begins.

Examinations and Tests

Your doctor will do a physical exam and ask about your symptoms and past health. Your doctor may ask about:

  • Any medicines that you take.
  • Your eating habits.
  • Any current or past conditions or diseases that you or a close family member has had.
  • Your history of pregnancy, menstruation, or other sources of bleeding.

You'll have tests to help find the cause of anemia. Tests may include:

  • Blood tests. These include a complete blood count (CBC), which looks at the shape, colour, number, and size of your blood cells. And it may include a reticulocyte count, which shows how well the bone marrow is working to make red blood cells.
  • Iron tests. They are done to measure the amount of iron in your blood and to help find the type and severity of anemia. It may include a ferritin level test, which shows how much iron may be stored in the body.

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Treatment Overview

To treat iron deficiency anemia, your doctor will look for the cause of the anemia and treat that problem. Your doctor can recommend ways to increase your iron levels, such as taking iron supplement pills and eating iron-rich foods.

Most people start to feel better after a few weeks of taking iron pills. But don't stop taking them, even if you feel better. You'll need to keep taking the pills for several months to build up the iron in your body.

You may need to get iron through an I.V. if you have problems with the iron pills. If your anemia is severe, your doctor may give you a blood transfusion.

Self-Care

If you have iron deficiency anemia, your doctor may suggest taking iron supplement pills. Taking iron pills and getting enough iron in your food will correct most cases of iron deficiency anemia.

Here are some things you need to know when treating this condition.

  • Do not take iron pills without checking with your doctor.

    If you think you have anemia, see your doctor. Do not try to treat yourself.

    • Taking iron pills could delay the diagnosis of a serious problem, such as a bleeding ulcer or colon cancer.
    • If the anemia is not caused by iron deficiency, taking iron pills won't relieve the anemia. And it may cause you to have too much iron in your blood, or even iron poisoning.
  • Take iron pills for as long as your doctor tells you to.

    You may feel better after a few weeks of taking iron pills. But don't stop taking the pills. You'll need to keep taking them for several months to build up your iron stores.

  • Eat iron-rich foods each day.

    Iron-rich foods include meats, vegetables, whole grains, and fortified cereals.

  • Take iron on an empty stomach, if you can.

    Iron is absorbed best if you take it on an empty stomach. But in some people, iron supplements can cause problems such as stomach discomfort and constipation.

    • If you're having stomach problems, you may need to take the pills with food.
    • If your iron pills make you feel too sick, talk to your doctor. There may be another type of iron pill you can take.
  • Do not take iron pills with certain substances.
    • Don't take your iron pills within 2 hours of taking antacids or tetracycline.
    • Don't take your iron pills with:
      • Tea, coffee, chocolate, and other food or beverages high in caffeine.
      • Milk and other calcium-rich foods or supplements.
      • High-fibre foods, such as bran, whole grains, nuts, and raw green vegetables.
  • Keep iron pills out of the reach of children.

    Iron poisoning can be very dangerous.

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Credits

Current as of: December 13, 2023

Author: Healthwise Staff
Clinical Review Board
All Healthwise education is reviewed by a team that includes physicians, nurses, advanced practitioners, registered dieticians, and other healthcare professionals.

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