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What you need to know about iron-deficiency anemia

Iron-deficiency anemia is a medical condition that occurs when your body doesn’t have enough of the mineral iron. Iron is needed to make hemoglobin, a protein in your red blood cells that helps those cells deliver oxygen to your body. When iron is lacking, hemoglobin is lacking, and this means your body can’t get the amount of oxygen it needs.

Helpful information about iron-deficiency (anemia)

Iron-deficiency anemia is easily diagnosed and treated — and very common in females, especially those of childbearing age. The World Health Organization estimates that more than 42% of pregnant women and 30% of nonpregnant women and suffer from this condition.

Why do so many women of childbearing age have iron-deficiency anemia?

Women who are of childbearing age are at high risk for the condition because of the blood lost during monthly periods. If you have a heavy period, you might be at high risk for this condition. Women who are pregnant are also at high risk for the condition because their bodies are in need of even more iron than usual due to their increased blood volume and the iron and hemoglobin needed for a baby’s growth.

A number of other conditions and risk factors can lead to iron-deficiency anemia. Individuals who don’t consume enough iron — found in foods like meat, leafy greens, eggs, and iron-fortified foods — could be at risk. People who suffer blood loss for other reasons — such as ulcers or hernias — or even frequent blood donors can also be at risk. And because iron is absorbed by the body in the small intestine, individuals with disorders that affect the small intestine’s ability to absorb such nutrients can be at risk too.

What are some of the symptoms of anemia? And how is it diagnosed and treated?

Mild anemia usually goes unnoticed as some of the common symptoms of iron-deficiency anemia can be easily attributed to other issues or overlooked. But when the condition does worsen, common symptoms may include:

  • Fatigue or lack of energy
  • Generalized weakness
  • Pale or yellow skin
  • Headache, lightheadedness, or dizziness
  • Pounding in the ears
  • Shortness of breath
  • Rapid heartbeat or chest pain
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Brittle nails
  • Hair loss
  • Sore tongue
  • Poor appetite
  • Pica, unusual cravings for non-nutritive substances (like ice, dirt, or starch)

Your healthcare provider can run blood tests to diagnose iron-deficiency anemia. Because the condition is often under-diagnosed, being your own healthcare advocate can go a long way. If you’re suffering from any of these symptoms, ask your provider if they think such tests are warranted.

Once diagnosed, your provider will work to understand the underlying cause of the condition. Fortunately, for many, anemia can easily be treated with over-the-counter iron supplements or dietary changes. Many people do start to feel better after a few weeks, and your healthcare provider will likely have you retake the same blood tests a month or so after starting treatment to see if your iron levels are improving.

What can iron-deficiency anemia lead to?

If iron-deficiency anemia is left untreated, it can cause a number of complications such as heart problems and a greater susceptibility to infection.

In pregnant women, the condition is linked to premature births, babies with low birth weight, and greater blood loss after birth. Luckily, blood tests at initial prenatal healthcare appointments include blood tests that will look for signs of anemia. Based on these test results, for many women their prenatal care may very well include iron supplements.

  • AJ Friedman et al. “Iron deficiency anemia in women: A practical guide to detection, diagnosis, and treatment.” Obstetrical & Gynecological Survey. 70(5): 342-53. May 2015. Retrieved August 28 2017.
  • Mayo Clinic Staff. “Iron deficiency anemia.” Mayo Clinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, November 11 2016. Retrieved August 28 2017.
  • “Iron-Deficiency Anemia.” American Society of Hematology. American Society of Hematology. Retrieved August 28 2017.
  • “What Is Iron-Deficiency Anemia?” National Institutes of Health: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. March 26 2014. Retrieved August 28 2017.

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