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 cells. Then your body has less hemoglobin, and you cannot get enough oxygen.
Iron deficiency is the most common cause of anemia.
Iron deficiency anemia is caused by low levels of iron in the body. You might have low iron levels because you:
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:
Babies and small children who have anemia may:
Anemia in children must be treated so that mental and behavior problems do not last long.
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.
Your doctor will probably have you take iron supplement pills 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.
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.
Learning about iron deficiency anemia:
Mild iron deficiency anemia may not cause noticeable symptoms. If anemia is severe, symptoms may include:
Other signs may include:
Babies and small children with iron deficiency anemia may not grow as expected and may have delays in skills such as walking and talking. Children may be irritable and have a short attention span. These problems usually go away when the deficiency is treated. If it is not treated, mental and behavior problems may be permanent.
If your doctor suspects iron deficiency anemia, he or she will do a physical exam and ask about your symptoms and your medical history. Your doctor will want to know about:
Your doctor will recommend tests to check for low iron levels and anemia. Possible tests include:
If your doctor suspects that bleeding in your stomach or intestines is causing your anemia, you will have tests to determine the cause of the bleeding. These may include:
If blood tests don't find the problem, you may need a test called a bone marrow aspiration. Bone marrow aspiration removes a small amount of bone marrow fluid through a needle inserted into the bone. Because iron is stored in the bone marrow, this test can provide a good idea of how much iron is in the body. But bone marrow aspirations are not done very often.
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:
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 have iron replacement shots if you have an iron absorption problem and are not able to increase your iron levels by taking pills or increasing the amount of iron in your diet. You may need these shots throughout your life.
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:
Usually, people can eliminate iron deficiency anemia by taking iron as pills or shots and adding iron in their diet. If your anemia is not corrected with these treatments, your doctor will 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.
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.
Iron supplement shots can cause side effects. Shots given in a vein (intravenously, IV) pose the risk of an allergic reaction. Shots given in the muscle of the buttock (intramuscularly, IM) may produce permanent marks on the skin that look like a tattoo.
If you have iron deficiency anemia, talk with your doctor about taking iron supplement pills and getting enough iron in your food each day. Iron-rich foods include meats, vegetables, and whole grains such as iron-fortified cereals.
To get the most benefit from your iron pills and the iron content of your food:
Do not take your iron pills:
In some people, iron supplements can 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. 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 think you have anemia, do not take iron pills without talking with your doctor. If the iron loss is from intestinal bleeding, taking iron pills may delay the diagnosis of a serious problem such as a bleeding ulcer or colon cancer. If the anemia is not due to iron deficiency, taking iron pills will not relieve the anemia and may cause poisoning (iron toxicity) or iron overload (hemochromatosis).
Keep iron tablets out of the reach of small children. Iron poisoning can be very dangerous.
If you are pregnant, your doctor will test your iron level at your first prenatal visit, and he or she will give you prenatal vitamins that include iron (30 mg a day). If you are anemic, your doctor will give you a higher-dose pill to take.
|American Academy of Family Physicians|
|P.O. Box 11210|
|Shawnee Mission, KS 66207-1210|
The American Academy of Family Physicians offers information on adult and child health conditions and healthy living. Its website has topics on medicines, doctor visits, physical and mental health issues, parenting, and more.
|Iron Disorders Institute|
|P.O. Box 675|
|Taylors, SC 29687|
The Iron Disorders Institute is a national voluntary health agency that provides information about iron disorders such as hemochromatosis, acquired iron overload, sickle cell anemia, thalassemia, iron deficiency anemia, and anemia of chronic disease. The organization works with a scientific review board as well as various medical professional groups. A free newsletter, idInsight, is available.
|KidsHealth for Parents, Children, and Teens|
|Nemours Home Office|
|10140 Centurion Parkway|
|Jacksonville, FL 32256|
This website is sponsored by the Nemours Foundation. It has a wide range of information about children's health, from allergies and diseases to normal growth and development (birth to adolescence). This website offers separate areas for kids, teens, and parents, each providing age-appropriate information that the child or parent can understand. You can sign up to get weekly emails about your area of interest.
|National Anemia Action Council|
|555 East Wells Street|
|Milwaukee, WI 53202|
The National Anemia Action Council (NAAC) helps raise awareness of the public and health professionals about the prevalence, symptoms, and treatment options of anemia. This nonprofit organization provides information to help improve the lives of people with anemia. Through education, the NACC helps improve detection, evaluation, treatment, and patient health.
|National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI)|
|P.O. Box 30105|
|Bethesda, MD 20824-0105|
The U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) information center offers information and publications about preventing and treating:
|Office of Dietary Supplements, National Institutes of Health|
|6100 Executive Blvd., Room 3B01, MSC 7517|
|Bethesda, MD 20892-7517|
The Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS) supports research and disseminates research results in the area of dietary supplements. The ODS also provides advice to other federal agencies regarding research results related to dietary supplements.
Other Works Consulted
- Means RT (2012). Red blood cell function and disorders of iron metabolism. In EG Nabel, ed., ACP Medicine, section 15, chap. 21. Hamilton, ON: BC Decker.
- American Academy of Pediatrics (2010). Diagnosis and prevention of iron deficiency and iron-deficiency anemia in infants and young children (0–3 years of age). Pediatrics, 126(5): 1040–1050. Available online: http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/cgi/content/full/126/5/1040.
- Hillman RS, et al. (2011). Iron-deficiency anemia. In RS Hillman et al., eds., Hematology in Clinical Practice, 5th ed., pp. 53–64. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Paulman P (2011). Iron deficiency. In ET Bope, et al., eds., Conn's Current Therapy 2011, pp. 393–395. Philadelphia: Saunders.
- U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (2006). Screening and supplementation for iron deficiency anemia. Available online: http://www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/uspstf/uspsiron.htm.
|Primary Medical Reviewer||E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine|
|Specialist Medical Reviewer||Brian Leber, MDCM, FRCPC - Hematology|
|Last Revised||April 8, 2011|
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