The Problem with Iron Deficiency Anemia

Iron deficiency anemia is the most common nutritional deficiency in the world. If you are mild or moderately low in iron, you may not show any symptoms. However, more severe iron deficiency anemia symptoms may include fatigue, dizziness or an irregular heartbeat and can be life-threatening.

Are iron deficiency and anemia the same thing?

Iron deficiency is a type of anemia. Anemia happens when your body doesn’t receive enough oxygen from blood. Iron is the primary ‘fuel’ for making hemoglobin, the protein that distributes oxygen from lungs to the body. Anemia can happen at any stage of life due to varying needs for iron as well as lifestyle:

  • Infants age 6 months to 1 year, especially if premature or fed only breast milk. (Babies store up iron in the third trimester and use it in the first 4 to 6 months.
  • Children age 1 to 2 who drink a lot of cow’s milk, which is low in iron.
  • Women age 14 to 50 who have heavy periods or during pregnancy when their bodies need additional iron.
  • Older adults over age 65.
  • Vegetarians and vegans that don’t eat enough foods that contain iron.

What are the symptoms of iron deficiency?

Mild to moderate signs of iron deficiency anemia include:

  • Pale skin
  • Cracks at the side of the mouth
  • Sore or swollen tongue
  • Brittle fingernails or toenails

More severe signs of iron deficiency that can benefit from a medical diagnosis are:

  • Fatigue, weakness and lack of energy (most common)
  • Headache
  • Dizziness or difficulty concentrating
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Irregular heartbeat

What are the complications of iron deficiency?

Undiagnosed or untreated iron-deficiency anemia may cause the following complications:

  • Depression
  • Heart problems – Your heart has to work harder to move oxygen-rich blood through your body, which can lead to irregular heartbeats (arrhythmias), a heart murmur, an enlarged heart or even heart failure.
  • Increased risk of infections
  • Motor or cognitive development delays in children
  • Pregnancy complications

How can I treat iron deficiency?

Treatments for iron-deficiency vary depending on its severity and cause, but can include:

  • Iron supplements
  • Procedures such as iron therapy or intravaneous (IV) iron, red blood cell transfusions and surgery
  • Healthy lifestyle changes that including eating more iron-rich foods and vitamin C (helps body absorb iron), eliminating black tea (reduces iron absorption)
  • In extreme cases and along with other treatments, use of erythropoiesis stimulating agents (esa) are used to stimulate the bone marrow to make more red blood cells

When should I see a doctor about iron deficiency?

If you think you might have an iron deficiency, talk to your doctor. Iron deficiency anemia can be detected during a routine blood test, but your doctor may also want to discuss your risk factors and give you a physical exam. If you are diagnosed with iron deficiency anemia, be sure to follow the treatment plan recommended by your doctor.

American Family Physician
National Institutes of Health