Iron deficiency anemia is a common type of anemia – a condition in which their is lack of healthy red blood cells. Red blood cells carry oxygen in the body to tissues.
As the name suggests, iron deficiency anemia is caused by insufficient iron. Your body cannot make enough of the substance in red blood cells that allows them to carry oxygen (hemoglobin) without enough iron. As a result, iron deficiency anemia can make you tired and short of breath.
With iron supplementation, you can usually correct iron deficiency anemia. Sometimes for iron deficiency anemia additional tests or treatment are needed, especially if your doctor suspects that you are bleeding inside.
Initially, iron deficiency anemia may go unnoticed as it is so mild. But as the body becomes more iron deficient and the anemia worsens, the signs and symptoms intensify.
Signs and symptoms of iron deficiency anemia include:
- Extreme fatigue
- Pale skin
- Chest pain, fast heartbeat, or shortness of breath
- Headache, dizziness or lightheadedness
- Cold hands and feet
- Inflammation or pain of the tongue
- Brittle nails
- Unusual cravings for non-nutrients, such as ice, dirt, or starch
- Lack of appetite, especially in infants and children
When to see a doctor
See your doctor, if you or your child develops signs and symptoms suggesting iron deficiency anemia. So see your doctor for a diagnosis rather than taking iron supplements yourself. Overloading the body with iron can be dangerous because an excessive buildup of iron can damage your liver and lead to other complications.
Iron deficiency anemia occurs when your body lacks in iron content to produce hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is the part of red blood cells that gives blood its red color and allows red blood cells to carry oxygenated blood throughout your body.
If you don’t get enough iron or lose too much iron, your body cannot make enough hemoglobin, and iron deficiency anemia will eventually develop.
Causes of iron deficiency anemia include:
- Blood loss. Blood contains iron in red blood cells. So if you lose blood, you lose iron. Women who have a heavy period are at risk for iron deficiency anemia because they lose blood during periods. Slow, chronic blood loss in the body can cause iron deficiency anemia – such as a colon polyp, colorectal cancer, hiatus hernia, or peptic ulcer. Gastrointestinal bleeding can result from regular use of certain over-the-counter pain relievers, especially aspirin.
- A lack of iron in your diet. Your body regularly receives iron from the foods you eat. If you eat too little iron, your body can become low in iron over time. Examples of foods rich in iron include eggs, green leafy vegetables, meat, and foods fortified with iron. For proper growth and development, infants and children also need iron in their diets.
- An inability to absorb iron. In your small intestine, iron is absorbed from food into your bloodstream. A bowel disorder, such as celiac disease, which affects your gut’s ability to absorb nutrients from digested food, can lead to iron deficiency anemia. If part of your small intestine has been bypassed or surgically removed, it can affect your ability to absorb iron and other nutrients.
- Pregnancy. In many pregnant women, iron deficiency anemia occurs without iron supplementation, because their iron stores must serve their own increased blood volume and be a source of hemoglobin for the growing fetus.
These groups of people may be at increased risk of iron deficiency anemia:
- Women. Women in general are at greater risk of iron deficiency anemia because they lose blood during menstruation.
- Infants and children. Infants may be at risk of iron deficiency, especially those who were born with low birth weight or were born prematurely, who do not get enough iron from breast milk or formula. Children need more iron during growth spurts. If your child does not eat a healthy and varied diet, he is at risk of anemia.
- Vegetarians. People who do not eat meat are more likely to develop iron deficiency anemia if they do not eat other foods rich in iron.
- Frequent blood donors. People who donate blood regularly may have an increased risk of iron deficiency anemia because donating blood can deplete iron stores. A low hemoglobin level linked to donating blood may be a temporary problem that is resolved by eating more foods rich in iron. Ask your doctor, if you are told that you cannot donate blood because of low hemoglobin, if you should be concerned.
Usually, mild iron deficiency anemia does not cause complications. However, iron deficiency anemia can become serious if left untreated, and lead to health problems, including the following:
- Heart problems. Iron deficiency anemia can cause a fast or irregular heartbeat. Your heart has to pump more blood to compensate for the lack of oxygen carried in your blood when you are anemic. This can lead to heart enlargement or failure of heart.
- Problems during pregnancy. In pregnant women, severe iron deficiency anemia has been associated with low birth weight babies and premature births. But in pregnant women, the condition is preventable who receive iron supplements as part of their prenatal care.
- Growth problems. Severe iron deficiency in infants and children can lead to anemia as well as less growth and development. Additionally, iron deficiency anemia is associated with increased infections susceptibility.
You can lower your risk of iron deficiency anemia by choosing foods that are high in iron.
Choose foods rich in iron
Foods rich in iron include:
- Red meat, pork and poultry
- Dark green leafy vegetables, such as spinach
- Dried fruits, such as raisins and apricots
- Cereals, breads and pasta fortified with iron
Your body absorbs more iron from meat than other sources. If you choose not to eat meat, to absorb the same amount of iron you may need to increase your intake of iron-rich, plant-based foods.
Choose foods with vitamin C to improve iron absorption
You can improve your body’s absorption of iron by drinking citrus juice or eating other foods high in vitamin C at the same time as you eat foods high in iron. Vitamin C in citrus juices, such as orange juice, helps your body absorb dietary iron better.
Vitamin C is also found in:
- Leafy vegetables
Prevent iron deficiency anemia in infants
To prevent iron deficiency anemia in infants, give your baby breast milk or an iron fortified formula during the first year. Cow’s milk is not a good source of iron for babies and is not recommended for infants under one year of age. After 6 months, start giving your baby iron-fortified cereal or mashed meat at least twice a day to increase her iron intake. After a year, make sure children don’t drink more than 20 ounces (591 milliliters) of milk per day. Other foods are often replaced by too much milk, including those rich in iron.