What Is Iron-Deficiency Anemia?
If a patient has anemia, it means that their blood doesn’t have enough healthy red blood cells. Having healthy blood cells is important, as they deliver oxygen to the body’s tissues. A patient with anemia may often feel fatigued and have shortness of breath because their body is not getting enough oxygen. The most common type of anemia is iron-deficiency anemia. When the body does not have enough iron, it causes a deficiency, which in turn causes anemia. Iron deficiency anemia can be easily treated. In rare cases, if left untreated, it can lead to serious complications, such as heart problems in adults and growth problems in children.
What Are the Symptoms of Iron-Deficiency Anemia?
A person may not know they have iron-deficiency anemia at first, or the symptoms may be so mild that a person may ignore them at first. If iron-deficiency anemia isn’t treated, symptoms typically worsen over time. Some of the more common symptoms of iron-deficiency anemia include:
- Shortness of breath
- Unexplained fatigue
- Poor appetite (particularly in infants and young children)
- Cold hands and feet
- Chest pain
- Accelerated heartbeat
- Brittle nails
- Inflammation of the mouth or tongue
- Dizziness and lightheadedness
- Unusual cravings, such as for ice or starch
Sometimes patients may suspect iron-deficiency anemia and begin taking iron supplements on their own. However, iron-deficiency anemia should be diagnosed and treated by a medical professional. This is also to rule out other serious gastrointestinal disorders.
Why Does Iron-Deficiency Anemia Occur?
Iron is a key component and necessary component of hemoglobin, which enables oxygen transport and gives red blood cells their color. A lack of iron means a lack of hemoglobin, which will cause a lack of oxygen reaching organs and tissues in the body. Eventually, iron-deficiency anemia occurs. There are several potential causes of the condition; sometimes, it is the cause of poor diet, but it can also be caused by trauma or other medical conditions.
Blood loss is a common cause of iron deficiency anemia. This can be any type of blood loss, including trauma, menstruation, colorectal cancer, and peptic ulcers, among others. Women who have heavy periods are at risk for iron-deficiency anemia because of the amount of blood loss.
Intestinal disorders can also cause iron-deficiency anemia. Many Intestinal disorders involve the malabsorption of vitamins and minerals, including iron. Celiac disease, for example, interferes with your body’s capability of absorbing iron.
A poor diet that lacks sufficient iron can also contribute to iron-deficiency anemia. Children especially should eat iron-rich foods. To add more iron to your diet, try eating eggs, meat, and leafy greens.
Pregnancy can lead to a temporary complication of iron deficiency anemia. This is in part due to the need for hemoglobin for the fetus.
Am I At Risk for Iron-Deficiency Anemia?
Certain risk factors can increase your chances of iron-deficiency anemia, such as:
- Being vegetarian or vegan. Often, vegetarians and vegans don’t get enough iron in their diet, as one of the primary iron-rich foods is meat.
- Being female. Because of menstruation, pre-menopausal women are in a higher risk bracket.
- Being an infant or child. Infants and young children have a higher risk of iron deficiency anemia, particularly those who were born premature or had low birth weight at delivery.
- Frequently donating blood. If you are a frequent blood donor, blood loss can cause the condition.
How Is Iron-Deficiency Anemia Diagnosed?
If your physician suspects iron-deficiency anemia, they will first draw blood to be analyzed. Your doctor will look for normal hematocrit and hemoglobin levels when the lab returns the results. Lab tests will also check for levels of ferritin (a protein that stores iron) and look at the red blood cell size and color.
If your blood tests determine that iron-deficiency anemia is likely, your provider will want to treat the root cause. Sometimes this requires additional diagnostic tests. Your gastroenterologist may order additional tests, such as:
- Endoscopy. During this procedure, you are put under sedation, and a long, thin tube with a camera attached is inserted into the mouth and down the esophagus. Endoscopy can provide information about your throat, esophagus, stomach, and duodenum (first part of the lower intestine).
- Colonoscopy. This procedure is similar to endoscopy, however, your physician will examine the colon. After you prepare for your colonoscopy by emptying your colon (large intestine) the night before, a small, thin tube is inserted into the colon with a camera attached. This allows your provider to examine your colon, rectum, and anus.
- Ultrasound. Women at risk for iron-deficiency anemia may have a pelvic ultrasound if they have heavy periods with noticeable blood loss.
How Is Iron-Deficiency Anemia Treated?
In many cases, your physician will need to treat the underlying cause of iron-deficiency anemia, such as celiac disease, stomach ulcers, or heavy menstruation, in order to treat iron-deficiency anemia. In most cases, however, your doctor will recommend iron supplementation to boost iron levels in your body. It’s best to take iron supplements on an empty stomach with a vitamin C supplement, as vitamin C assists in the absorption of iron. Do not take iron supplements and antacids at the same time, as antacids can interfere with iron absorption. Wait at least two hours between each dose.
Can I Prevent Iron-Deficiency Anemia?
Many underlying factors that cause iron-deficiency anemia need treatment themselves, however, you can help prevent iron-deficiency anemia by eating iron-rich foods in conjunction with vitamin C-rich foods. Examples of iron-rich foods include leafy greens, meat, eggs, beans, pumpkin seeds, raisins, seafood, and iron-fortified cereals. Examples of vitamin C-rich foods include many fruits, such as kiwi and strawberries, bell peppers, tomatoes, cauliflower, leafy greens, and Brussels sprouts.