According to the Iron Disorders Institute, iron deficiency is the leading cause of anemia in the world. Iron deficiency can be treated successfully, but the Center for Disease Control and Prevention still found that iron deficiency or anemia led to more than 4,800 deaths in the United States in 2007.
Your body uses iron to make hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen to the body’s tissues. Without sufficient iron, your body makes less hemoglobin and fewer red blood cells, meaning less oxygen gets to where it needs to go.
You lose iron when you lose blood. Iron deficiency may be brought about by long, heavy or frequent menstrual periods, or internal bleeding caused by ulcers or some cancers. Prolonged use of aspirin, arthritis medicine or ibuprofen can also result in gastrointestinal bleeding.
Iron deficiency may be the product of a diet that does not provide you with the proper amount of iron. This may happen if you are a strict vegetarian or vegan, or are older and do not eat the right foods. According to the CDC, the body absorbs iron from meat, poultry and fish more efficiently than it does iron from plant products. Furthermore, the plant iron’s absorption depends on what else you eat with it. For example, meat, poultry, fish and foods containing vitamin C boost iron absorption. Celiac disease, Crohn’s disease or gastric bypass surgery may lead to iron absorption problems.
Symptoms and diagnosis
Mild anemia may go unnoticed until the condition worsens. Symptoms of mild iron deficiency anemia include feeling grumpy, weak or tired more often than usual. You may have headaches or problems concentrating or thinking. Your body may have difficulty maintaining its normal temperature and you may notice an inflamed tongue. You may appear pale and feel short of breath or dizzy.
According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, anemia can lead to organ damage. Anemia can also impede the effectiveness of cancer or HIV/AIDS treatments. Iron deficiency in pregnant women can lead to premature birth and babies with low birth weights.
Doctors can diagnose iron deficiency anemia by running a complete blood count (CBC) to check your hemoglobin and hematocrit — a measure of the amount of space taken up by red blood cells — levels. They may also check your iron levels with serum ferritin and serum iron tests.
Iron deficiency anemia cannot be treated instantly, but you will start to feel better over time, and your condition will improve. Treatment plans depend on age, health, cause and the severity of your condition. Your doctor may recommend supplements to help replenish your iron reserves. He or she may recommend that you work to increase the iron you get from your food or take vitamin supplements. If you have an iron absorption problem, you may need iron replacement shots. Doctors may decide to treat severe anemia with a blood transfusion.
If you are pregnant, you can prevent iron deficiency by eating iron-rich foods and see if your doctor recommends you take an iron supplement. Babies and young children need more iron because of their rapid growth. Talk to your child’s doctor about the best way to go about making sure your baby or toddler is getting enough iron. The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute has a guide for living with anemia that is broken down by age group.