Covers iron deficiency anemia. Explains role of iron in making hemoglobin, part of red blood cells. Covers causes and symptoms. Includes info on tests used to diagnose anemia. Discusses foods that may help prevent anemia. Covers treatment with medicines.
Iron Deficiency Anemia
What is iron deficiency anemia?
Iron deficiency anemia occurs when your
body doesn't have enough iron.
Iron is important because it helps
you get enough oxygen throughout your body. Your body uses iron to make
hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is a part of your red blood
cells. Hemoglobin carries oxygen through your body. If you do not have enough
iron, your body makes fewer and smaller
red blood cells. Then your body has less hemoglobin, and you cannot get enough
deficiency is the most
common cause of
What causes iron deficiency anemia?
Iron deficiency anemia is caused by low levels of
iron in the body. You might have low iron levels because you:
Have heavy menstrual bleeding.
not getting enough iron in food. This can happen in people who need a lot of
iron, such as small children, teens, and pregnant women.
Have bleeding inside your body. This bleeding may be caused by
problems such as
hemorrhoids, or cancer. This bleeding can also happen
with regular aspirin use. Bleeding inside the body is the most common cause of
iron deficiency anemia in men and in women after menopause.
absorb iron well in your body. This problem may occur if you have
celiac disease or if you have had part of your stomach
or small intestine removed.
What are the symptoms?
You may not notice the symptoms of anemia, because it develops slowly and
the symptoms may be mild. In fact, you may not notice them until your anemia
gets worse. As anemia gets worse, you may:
Feel weak and tire out more easily.
Be grumpy or cranky.
Look very pale.
Feel short of
Have trouble concentrating.
Babies and small children who have anemia may:
Have a short attention
Grow more slowly than normal.
such as walking and talking, later than normal.
Anemia in children must be treated so that mental and
behavior problems do not last long.
How is iron deficiency anemia diagnosed?
If you think you have anemia,
see your doctor. Your doctor will do a physical exam and ask you questions
about your medical history and your symptoms. Your doctor will take some of
your blood to run tests. These tests may include a
complete blood count to look at your red blood cells
and an iron test that shows how much iron is in your blood.
doctor may also do tests to find out what is causing your anemia.
How is it treated?
Your doctor will
probably have you take iron supplement pills and eat foods rich in iron to treat your anemia. Most people
begin to feel better after a few days of taking iron pills. But do not stop
taking the pills even if you feel better. You will need to keep taking the
pills for several months to build up the iron in your body.
your doctor finds an exact cause of your anemia, such as a bleeding ulcer, your
doctor will also treat that problem.
If you think you have anemia,
do not try to treat yourself. Do not take iron pills on your own without seeing
your doctor first. If you take iron pills without talking with your doctor
first, the pills may cause you to have too much iron in your blood, or even
iron poisoning. Your low iron level may be caused by a serious problem, such as
a bleeding ulcer or colon cancer. These other problems need different treatment
than iron pills.
You can get the most benefit from iron pills if
you take them with vitamin C or drink orange juice. Do not take your iron pills
with milk, caffeine, foods with high fiber, or antacids.
Can you prevent iron deficiency anemia?
prevent anemia by eating foods that contain iron every day. Iron-rich
foods include meats, vegetables, and whole grains such as iron-fortified cereals.
You can prevent anemia in babies and children by following recommendations for feeding infants and making sure babies and children get enough iron.
If you are pregnant, you can prevent anemia by taking
prenatal vitamins. Your doctor will give you prenatal vitamins that include
iron. Your doctor will also test your blood to see if you are anemic. If you
are anemic, you will take a higher-dose iron pill.
iron deficiency anemia may not cause noticeable
anemia is severe, symptoms may include:
Weakness, fatigue, or lack of
Shortness of breath during
Craving substances that are not food (pica). In
particular, a craving for ice can be a sign of iron deficiency anemia.
Other signs may include:
Brittle fingernails and
Smooth, sore tongue.
Muscle pain during exercise.
Babies and small children with iron deficiency anemia may
not grow as expected and may have delays in skills such as walking and talking.
Children may be irritable and have a short attention span. These problems
usually go away when the deficiency is treated. If it is not treated, mental
and behavior problems may be permanent.
Exams and Tests
If your doctor suspects
iron deficiency anemia, he or she will do a physical
exam and ask about your symptoms and your medical history. Your doctor will
want to know about:
Any medicines that you are taking.
Any current or past conditions or diseases that you or a
close family member has had.
Your history of pregnancy,
menstruation, or other sources of bleeding.
Your doctor will recommend tests to check for low iron
anemia. Possible tests include:
which measure the amount of iron in your blood, to help determine the type and
severity of anemia.
Reticulocyte count, to help determine the cause of anemia. Reticulocytes are immature
red blood cells produced by bone marrow and released into the bloodstream.
Levels of reticulocytes are lower in iron deficiency anemia.
ferritin level test, which reflects how much iron may
be stored in the body. Abnormally low
ferritin levels may point to iron deficiency anemia.
This is one of the first tests to be abnormal when you have iron
If your doctor suspects that
bleeding in your stomach or intestines is causing your anemia, you
will have tests to determine the cause of the bleeding. These may
colonoscopy. This test inspects the entire large
intestine (colon) using a long, flexible, lighted viewing scope to look for
polyps or other sources of bleeding.
An upper gastrointestinal (GI)
endoscopy. This test, which uses a thin, flexible,
lighted viewing instrument, can help identify stomach ulcers or other causes of
irritation or bleeding.
Video capsule endoscopy. For this test,
you swallow a capsule that contains a tiny camera. As the capsule travels
through your system, the camera takes pictures of your small intestine that can
show where bleeding is occurring.
If blood tests don't find the problem, you may need a test
called a bone marrow aspiration. Bone marrow aspiration removes a small amount
of bone marrow fluid through a needle inserted into the bone. Because iron is
stored in the bone marrow, this test can provide a good idea of how much iron
is in the body. But bone marrow aspirations are not done very often.
iron deficiency anemia focuses on increasing your iron
stores so they reach normal levels and identifying and controlling any
conditions that caused the
anemia. If your anemia is caused by:
A disease or condition, such as bleeding in your stomach, your doctor will take steps to correct the
Not having enough iron in your diet or
not being able to absorb iron, your doctor will work
with you to develop a plan to increase your iron levels.
Taking iron supplement pills and getting enough iron in your food will correct most cases of iron deficiency anemia. You
usually take iron pills 1 to 3 times a day. To get the most benefit from the
pills, take them with vitamin C (ascorbic acid) pills or orange juice. Vitamin
C helps your body absorb more iron.
Most people start to feel
better within a few days of beginning treatment. Even though you feel better,
you will need to keep taking the pills for several months to build up your iron
stores. Sometimes it takes up to 6 months of treatment with iron supplements
before iron levels return to normal.
You may need to get iron through an IV if you have problems with the iron pills or if your body doesn't absorb enough
iron from food or iron pills.
anemia is severe, your doctor may give you a
blood transfusion to correct your anemia quickly and
then have you start on iron supplement pills and a diet high in iron.
To watch your condition, your doctor will use blood tests, such as:
Iron tests, which measure the amount of iron in your
reticulocyte count, to see how well treatment is
working. Reticulocytes are immature red blood cells produced by the bone marrow
and released into the bloodstream. When reticulocyte counts increase, it
usually means that iron replacement treatment is effective.
Usually, people can eliminate iron deficiency anemia by
taking iron as pills and adding iron in their diet. If your anemia is
not corrected with these treatments, your doctor might do more testing to look
for other causes of your anemia, such as new bleeding or difficulty absorbing
iron from pills. These tests may be the same as those initially used to
diagnose your anemia.
What to think about
If you suspect you have iron
deficiency anemia, do not take iron pills without consulting your doctor.
Taking iron pills could delay the diagnosis of a serious problem such as
colorectal cancer or a bleeding ulcer.
If the anemia is not due to
iron deficiency, taking iron pills will not relieve the anemia and could cause
poisoning (iron toxicity). It could also cause an
iron overload condition called
hemochromatosis, especially in people who have a
genetic tendency toward storing too much iron in their bodies.
some people, iron pills cause stomach discomfort, nausea, diarrhea,
constipation, and black stool. Iron is best absorbed if taken on an empty
stomach. But if you are having stomach problems, you may need to take the pills
with food. Do not take iron pills with milk, caffeinated drinks, or antacids.
If the side effects of your iron pills make you feel too sick, talk to your
doctor. He or she may know of another type of iron pill you can take.
If you have
iron deficiency anemia, talk with your doctor about
taking iron supplement pills and
getting enough iron in your food each day. Iron-rich
foods include meats, vegetables, and whole grains such as iron-fortified cereals.
To get the most benefit from your iron
pills and the iron content of your food:
Take vitamin C (ascorbic acid) or drink orange
juice with your pills.
Steam vegetables to help them retain their
Do not take your iron pills:
Within 2 hours of taking antacids or tetracycline (an
With certain foods,
chemicals, and nutrients. These include:
Tea, coffee, chocolate, and other food or
beverages high in caffeine.
Milk and other calcium-rich foods or
High-fiber foods, such as bran, whole grains, nuts,
and raw green vegetables.
In some people, iron supplements can cause stomach
discomfort, nausea, diarrhea, constipation, and black stool. Iron is best
absorbed if taken on an empty stomach. But if you are having stomach problems,
you may need to take the pills with food. If the side effects of your iron
pills make you feel too sick, talk to your doctor. He or she may know of
another type of iron pill you can take.
If you think you have
anemia, do not take iron pills without talking with your doctor. If the iron
loss is from intestinal bleeding, taking iron pills may delay the diagnosis of
a serious problem such as a bleeding ulcer or colon cancer. If the anemia is
not due to iron deficiency, taking iron pills will not relieve the anemia and
may cause poisoning (iron toxicity) or iron overload (hemochromatosis).
Keep iron tablets out
of the reach of small children. Iron poisoning can be very dangerous.
If you are pregnant, your doctor will test your iron level
at your first prenatal visit, and he or she will give you prenatal vitamins
that include iron (30 mg a day). If you are anemic, your doctor will give you a
higher-dose pill to take.
Other Places To Get Help
Iron Disorders Institute
NIH: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (U.S.)
Means RT (2012). Red blood cell function and disorders of iron metabolism. In EG Nabel, ed., ACP Medicine, section 15, chap. 21. Hamilton, ON: BC Decker.
American Academy of Pediatrics (2010). Diagnosis and prevention of iron deficiency and iron-deficiency anemia in infants and young children (0–3 years of age). Pediatrics, 126(5): 1040–1050. Available online: http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/cgi/content/full/126/5/1040.
Hillman RS, et al. (2011). Iron-deficiency anemia. In RS Hillman et al., eds., Hematology in Clinical Practice, 5th ed., pp. 53–64. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Paulman P (2011). Iron deficiency. In ET Bope, et al., eds., Conn's Current Therapy 2011, pp. 393–395. Philadelphia: Saunders.
U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (2006). Screening and supplementation for iron deficiency anemia. Available online: http://www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/uspstf/uspsiron.htm.
How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.