What Is Iron Deficiency Anemia?
Anemia occurs when you have lower than normal level of red blood cells (RBCs). 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.
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?
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 childbirth.
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 iron-rich food
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?
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 include:
- 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
If you feel any of these symptoms talk to your doctor. The symptoms, by self, are not enough to diagnose anemia. Your doctor will make blood test in order to determine if you have anemia.
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. 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. 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:
- red meat
- dark green, leafy vegetables
- dried fruits
- iron-fortified cereals
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 infant formula.
Foods high in iron include:
- meat, such as lamb, pork, chicken, and beef
- pumpkin and squash seeds
- leafy greens, such as spinach
- raisins and other dried fruit
- seafood, such as clams, sardines, shrimp, and oysters
- iron-fortified dry and instant cereals
Foods high in vitamin C include:
- citrus fruits, such as oranges, grapefruits, strawberries, kiwis, guavas, papayas, pineapples, melons, and mangoes
- red and green bell peppers
- Brussels sprouts
- leafy greens
If you experience few of the symptoms listed above, 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.