Iron deficiency anemia is a common type of anemia that occurs when your blood doesn’t have enough healthy red blood cells.
When your body doesn’t have enough iron, it can’t produce enough hemoglobin — a substance in red blood cells that lets them carry oxygen.
Red blood cells carry oxygen to the body’s tissues and remove carbon dioxide. Not having enough working red blood cells may lead to tiredness and shortness of breath.
Iron deficiency anemia usually develops over time as your body taps into the iron it has stored, then eventually runs out.
Causes of Iron Deficiency Anemia
Low iron may be caused by:
Inadequate diet: Eating the right foods can provide adequate iron to the body. The following foods are high in iron:
- Dried fruits
- Dark green leafy vegetables, such as spinach and chard
- Iron-fortified foods, such as breads and cereals
Not eating enough of the above foods can put you at a higher risk of developing iron-deficiency anemia.
Inability to absorb iron: Sometimes getting the right amount of iron from your diet isn’t enough if your body isn’t able to absorb it properly.
People who’ve had intestinal surgery, such as gastric bypass, or those with Crohn’s disease or celiac disease may experience this.
Iron absorption can also be limited by prescription medicines that reduce acid in the stomach.
Blood loss: Whenever you lose blood from your body, iron loss also occurs. Iron deficiency anemia develops when you don’t have enough iron stored in your body to make up for the iron lost in your blood.
Blood loss that leads to low iron levels can result from:
- Heavy menstrual periods
- Bleeding fibroids (noncancerous growths) in the uterus
- Internal bleeding caused by an ulcer, colon polyp, colon cancer, urinary tract bleeding, use of pain medications, or other sites
- Injuries or surgery
- Repeated blood drawings
Symptoms of Iron Deficiency Anemia
If you have mild to moderate iron deficiency anemia, you may not have any signs or symptoms.
But as the condition worsens, you may experience:
- Pale skin
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Frequent infections
- Dizziness or light-headedness
- Cold hands and feet
- Swelling or soreness of your tongue
- Cracks around your mouth
- Brittle nails
- Fast heartbeat
- Poor appetite
- Restless legs syndrome
- Enlarged spleen
- Cravings for nonfood items, such as ice, dirt, paint, or starch
Iron-Deficiency Anemia and Diet
Your doctor may recommend a diet filled with iron-rich foods if you’re mildly anemic.
The foods with the highest iron content are:
- Meat, especially beef and liver
- Poultry — chicken livers are packed with iron
- Fish and shellfish, especially oysters
- Leafy greens, like kale, spinach, and broccoli
- Beans and peas
- Iron-enriched breads, pastas, and cereals
Note: Iron from vegetable sources is less readily absorbed than iron from meat, poultry or seafood.
Treatment of Iron Deficiency Anemia
It takes time to treat iron deficiency anemia, and one treatment may be recommended after another one fails.
Your doctor may recommend:
Iron supplements: These over-the-counter drugs can be taken in pill or liquid form (if needed for babies and kids).
Your doctor will give you specific instructions on how to take the supplements to ensure that your body absorbs the iron properly.
Your doctor may suggest taking them on an empty stomach or with vitamin C, and may recommend avoiding antacids.
Treating underlying causes: When diet and supplements aren’t enough to treat iron deficiency anemia, your doctor may treat certain underlying causes of your iron deficiency. These treatments may include:
- Medications, such as oral contraceptives, to lighten your menstrual periods
- Antibiotics or other drugs for peptic ulcers
- Surgery to remove a bleeding polyp, tumor, or fibroid
If your condition is severe, you may need to receive iron intravenously (by IV) or undergo a blood transfusion.