What Is Iron Deficiency Anemia?
Anemia occurs when you have a level of red blood cells
(RBCs) in your blood that is lower than normal. Iron deficiency anemia is the
most common type of anemia, and it occurs when your body doesn’t have enough of
the mineral iron. Your body needs iron to make a protein called hemoglobin.
This protein is responsible for carrying oxygen to your body’s tissues, which
is essential for your tissues and muscles to function effectively. When there
isn’t enough iron in your blood stream, the rest of your body can’t get the
amount of oxygen it needs.
While the condition may be common, a lot of people don’t
know they have iron deficiency anemia. It’s possible to experience the symptoms
for years without ever knowing the cause.
In women of childbearing age, the most common cause of iron
deficiency anemia is a loss of iron in the blood due to heavy menstruation or
pregnancy. A poor diet or certain intestinal diseases that affect how the body
absorbs iron can also cause iron deficiency anemia. Doctors normally treat the
condition with iron supplements or changes to diet.
What Causes Iron Deficiency Anemia?
According to the American Society of
Hematology, iron deficiency is the most common cause of anemia. There are
many reasons why a person might become deficient in iron. These include:
Inadequate Iron Intake
Eating too little iron over an extended amount of time can cause
a shortage in your body. Foods such as meat, eggs, and some green leafy
vegetables are high in iron. Because iron is essential during times of rapid
growth and development, pregnant women and young children may need even more iron-rich
foods in their diet
Pregnancy or Blood Loss Due to Menstruation
In women of childbearing age, the most common causes of iron
deficiency anemia are heavy menstrual bleeding and blood loss during
Certain medical conditions can cause internal bleeding, which can
lead to iron deficiency anemia. Examples include an ulcer in your stomach,
polyps (tissue growths) in the colon or intestines, or colon cancer. Regular
use of pain relievers, such as aspirin, can also cause bleeding in the stomach.
Inability to Absorb Iron
Certain disorders or surgeries that affect the intestines can
also interfere with how your body absorbs iron. Even if you get enough iron in
your diet, celiac disease or intestinal surgery, such as gastric bypass, may
limit the amount of iron your body can absorb.
Who Is at Risk for Iron Deficiency Anemia?
Anemia is a common condition and can occur in both men and women of
any age and from any ethnic group. Some people may be at greater risk for iron
deficiency anemia than others. These include:
- women of childbearing age
- pregnant women
- people with poor diets
- people who donate blood frequently
- infants and children, especially those born
prematurely or experiencing a growth spurt
- vegetarians who don’t replace meat with another
If you’re at risk for iron deficiency anemia, talk to your
doctor to determine if blood testing or dietary changes could benefit you.
What Are the Symptoms of Iron Deficiency Anemia?
The symptoms of iron deficiency anemia can be very mild at first,
and you may not even notice them. According to the American Society of
Hematology (ASH), most people don’t realize they have mild anemia until they
have a routine blood test.
The symptoms of moderate to severe iron deficiency anemia
- general fatigue
- pale skin
- shortness of breath
- strange cravings to eat items that aren’t food,
such as dirt, ice, or clay
- a tingling or crawling feeling in the legs
- tongue swelling or soreness
- cold hands and feet
- fast or irregular heartbeat
- brittle nails
How Is Iron Deficiency Anemia Diagnosed?
A doctor can diagnose anemia with blood tests. These include:
Complete Blood Cell (CBC) Test
A complete blood cell (CBC) test is usually the first test a
doctor will use. A CBC test measures the amount of all components in the blood,
- red blood cells (RBCs)
- white blood cells (WBCs)
The CBC test provides information about your blood that is
helpful in diagnosing iron deficiency anemia. This information includes:
- the hematocrit level, which is the percent of
blood volume that is made up of RBCs
- the hemoglobin level
- the size of your RBCs
In iron deficiency anemia, the hematocrit and hemoglobin levels
are low. Also, RBCs are usually smaller in size than normal.
A CBC test is often performed as part of a routine physical examination.
It’s a good indicator of a person’s overall health. It may also be performed
routinely before a surgery. This test is useful to diagnose this type of anemia
since most people who have an iron deficiency don’t realize it.
Anemia can usually be confirmed with a CBC test. Your doctor
might order additional blood tests to determine how severe your anemia is and
help determine treatments. They may also examine your blood through a
microscope. These blood tests will provide information including:
level in your blood
- RBC size and color
- RBCs are pale in color if they’re deficient in
- ferritin levels
- Ferritin is a protein that helps with iron
storage in your body. Low levels of ferritin indicate low iron storage.
iron-binding capacity (TIBC)
- Transferrin is a protein that transports iron. A
TIBC test is used to determine the amount transferrin that’s carrying iron.
Tests for Internal Bleeding
If your doctor is concerned that internal bleeding is causing
your anemia, additional tests may be needed. One test you may have is fecal
occult test to look for blood in your feces. Blood in your feces may indicate
bleeding in your intestine.
Another test for internal bleeding is a pelvic ultrasound. This
test can be used to look for the source of excess bleeding during a woman’s
period, such as fibroids. Fibroids are noncancerous tumors in the uterus.
Iron Deficiency Anemia in Women
Pregnancy, significant menstrual bleeding, and uterine fibroids
are all reasons why women are more likely to experience iron deficiency anemia.
Heavy menstrual bleeding occurs when a woman bleeds longer or more
than women typically bleed during menstruation. According to the Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), typical menstrual bleeding lasts
for four to five days and the amount of blood lost ranges from 2 to 3
tablespoons. Women with excess menstrual bleeding typically bleed for more than
seven days and lose twice as much blood as normal.
According to the National
Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), an estimated 20 percent of women
of childbearing age have iron deficiency anemia. Pregnant women are even more
likely to experience iron deficiency anemia because they require greater amounts
of blood to support their growing babies.
Like iron deficiency anemia, uterine fibroids often don’t cause
symptoms. However, they occur when muscular tumors grow in the uterus. While
they’re not usually cancerous, they can commonly cause heavy menstrual bleeding
that can lead to iron deficiency anemia.
What Are the Potential Health Complications of Iron Deficiency Anemia?
Most cases of iron deficiency anemia are mild and don’t cause
complications. The condition can usually be easily corrected. However, if
anemia or iron deficiency is untreated, it can lead to other health problems,
Rapid or Irregular Heartbeat
When you’re anemic, your heart has to pump more blood to make up
for the low amount of oxygen. This can lead to irregular heartbeat. In severe
cases, it can lead to heart failure or an enlarged heart.
In severe cases of iron deficiency, a child may be born
prematurely or with a low birth weight. Most pregnant women take iron
supplements as part of their prenatal care to prevent this from happening.
Delayed Growth in Infants and Children
Infants and children who are severely deficient in iron may
experience a delay in their growth and development. They may also be more likely
to experience infections.
How Is Iron Deficiency Anemia Treated?
Iron tablets can help restore iron levels in your body. If
possible, you should take iron tablets on an empty stomach, which helps the
body absorb them better. If they upset your stomach, you can take them with
meals. You may need to take the supplements for several months. Iron
supplements may cause constipation or stools that are black in color.
Diets high that include the following foods can help treat or
prevent iron deficiency:
green, leafy vegetables
Additionally, vitamin C helps your body absorb iron. If
you’re taking iron tablets, a doctor might suggest taking the tablets along
with a source of vitamin C, like a glass of orange juice or citrus fruit.
Treating the Underlying Cause of Bleeding
Iron supplements won’t help if excess bleeding causes the
deficiency. A doctor may prescribe birth control pills to women who have heavy
periods. This can reduce the amount of menstrual bleeding each month.
In the most severe cases, a blood transfusion can replace
iron and blood loss quickly.
Can Iron Deficiency Anemia Be Prevented?
When caused by inadequate iron intake, iron deficiency
anemia can be prevented by eating a diet high in iron-rich foods and vitamin C.
Mothers should make sure to feed their babies breast milk or iron-fortified
Foods high in iron include:
such as lamb, pork, chicken, and beef
and squash seeds
greens, such as spinach
and other dried fruit
such as clams, sardines, shrimp, and oysters
dry and instant cereals
Foods high in vitamin C include:
fruits, such as oranges, grapefruits, strawberries, kiwis, guavas, papayas,
pineapples, melons, and mangoes
and green bell peppers
Iron Deficiency Anemia Outlook
If you experience symptoms of iron deficiency anemia, talk
to your doctor. Self-diagnosing and self-treating iron deficiency anemia can
result in adverse health effects due to too much iron in your blood. The complications
from too much iron in your blood include liver damage and constipation.