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By Rachel Choate, RN-C, FNP-C, Oxford’s Special Programs Manager

Iron deficiency anemia is a common type of anemia in which blood lacks adequate healthy red blood cells. Iron deficiency anemia is caused by a lack of iron in the body. Without enough iron, your body can’t produce plentiful hemoglobin, a substance in red blood cells that enables them to carry oxygen. As a result, iron deficiency anemia may cause you to feel tired and short of breath.

Causes of Iron Deficiency Anemia

Iron deficiency anemia occurs when your body doesn’t have enough iron to produce hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is the part of red blood cells that gives blood its red color and enables the red blood cells to carry oxygenated blood throughout your body.

  • Blood loss – Blood contains iron within red blood cells. So if you lose blood, you lose iron. Women with heavy periods are at risk of iron deficiency anemia because they lose blood during menstruation. Slow, chronic blood loss within the body—such as from a peptic ulcer, a hiatal hernia, a colon polyp or colorectal cancer—can cause iron deficiency anemia. Gastrointestinal bleeding can result from regular use of some over-the-counter pain relievers, such as aspirin.
  • A lack of iron in your diet – Your body regularly gets iron from the foods you eat. If you don’t consume enough iron, over time your body can become iron deficient. Examples of iron-rich foods include meat, eggs, leafy green vegetables and iron-fortified foods. For proper growth and development, infants and children need iron from their diet.
  • An inability to absorb iron – Iron from food is absorbed into your bloodstream in the small intestine. An intestinal disorder, such as celiac disease, which affects your intestine’s ability to absorb nutrients from digested food, can lead to iron deficiency anemia. If part of your small intestine has been bypassed or removed surgically, that may affect your ability to absorb iron and other nutrients.
  • Pregnancy – Without iron supplementation, iron deficiency anemia occurs in many pregnant women because their iron stores need to serve their own increased blood volume as well as be a source of hemoglobin for the growing fetus.

Symptoms of Iron Deficiency Anemia

  • Extreme fatigue
  • Pale skin
  • Weakness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Headache
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Irritability
  • Inflammation or soreness of your tongue
  • Brittle nails
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Unusual cravings for non-nutritive substances, such as ice, dirt or starch
  • Poor appetite, especially in infants and children with iron deficiency anemia
  • An uncomfortable tingling or crawling feeling in your legs (restless legs syndrome)

If you or a loved one experiences these symptoms that suggest iron deficiency anemia, see your health care provider. Please do not try to self-diagnose or treat iron deficiency anemia. See your health care provider for a diagnosis, rather than taking iron supplements on your own. Overloading the body with iron can be dangerous because excess iron accumulation can damage your liver and cause other complications.

Diagnosing Iron Deficiency Anemia

Iron deficiency anemia is diagnosed with lab work as ordered by your health care provider. What is most important is to determine the reason why you have this type of anemia. It is often related to blood loss. Finding the cause is of utmost importance so the proper treatment can be prescribed.