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Iron Deficiency Anemia


Topic Overview

Red blood cells

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 cellsClick here to see an illustration.. Then your body has less hemoglobin, and you cannot get enough oxygen.

Iron deficiency is the most common cause of anemia.

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.
  • Are 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 ulcers, 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.
  • Cannot 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.
  • Feel dizzy.
  • Be grumpy or cranky.
  • Have headaches.
  • Look very pale.
  • Feel short of breath.
  • Have trouble concentrating.

Babies and small children who have anemia may:

  • Be fussy.
  • Have a short attention span.
  • Grow more slowly than normal.
  • Develop skills, 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.

Your 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.

If 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?

You can 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.

Frequently Asked Questions

Learning about iron deficiency anemia:

Being diagnosed:

Getting treatment:

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