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Iron Deficiency Anemia (cont.)

Treatment Overview

Treatment for 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 problem.
  • 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.

If your 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:

  • A complete blood count (CBC), to look at the shape, color, number, and size of your blood cells.
  • Iron tests, which measure the amount of iron in your blood.
  • A 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.
  • A ferritin level test, which reflects how much iron may be stored in the body.

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.

In 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 get iron through an IV, there is a risk of an allergic reaction.

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