Iron deficiency anemia is a blood disorder characterized by shortage of healthy red blood cells in the blood. It occurs when the body lacks sufficient iron to produce hemoglobin, a protein found in red blood cells that enables them to transport oxygen throughout the body. It is considered as the most prevalent type of anemia.
Iron deficiency anemia can develop when individuals do not consume enough iron or have disorders that restrict the amount of iron their bodies absorb. The symptoms may develop gradually. A person may experience weariness or shortness of breath.
Doctors will perform tests and ask questions to determine the cause of iron deficiency. Iron supplements can be prescribed as a treatment for iron-deficiency anemia. If internal bleeding is suspected, additional testing or treatment may be required.
Iron deficiency anemia symptoms can range from mild to severe and typically develop gradually. If left untreated, they may worsen over time. Some of the most common symptoms of iron deficiency anemia include:
- Unusual tiredness
- Skin is paler than usual
- Concentration problems
- Chest discomfort, heart palpitations, or shortness of breath
- Headache, dizziness, or lightheadedness
- Chilly feeling on hands and feet
- Tongue inflammation or glossitis
- Nail brittleness or koilonychia
- Pica or strange appetites for non-food items, such as ice, chalk, paint, clay, or starch
- Appetite loss, particularly in newborns and toddlers with iron – deficiency anemia
- Restless legs syndrome
Individuals who are experiencing persistent symptoms of iron-deficiency anemia should seek medical attention promptly. It is important to receive a proper diagnosis before taking iron supplements. Overloading the body with iron can be harmful and may result in liver damage and other complications. Therefore, self-diagnosis and treatment of iron deficiency anemia is not recommended.
The body typically absorbs a steady amount of iron from the food that is eaten. Any excess iron is stored in the body to be used later in the production of hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is a vital component of red blood cells that gives blood its red color and enables the red blood cells to transport oxygen throughout the body.
Iron deficiency anemia occurs when the body’s iron stores are depleted faster than they can be replenished, or when there is a decreased flow of iron into the body, resulting in insufficient iron to produce hemoglobin. Iron deficiency anemia is often caused by:
- Loss of blood: The disease such as peptic ulcer, hiatal hernia, colon polyp, or colorectal cancer can cause slow and chronic blood loss within the body which can deplete the body’s store of iron and can lead to iron deficiency anemia. Blood loss can also happen due to heavy menstruation in women. Regular long-term use of various over-the-counter pain medications, particularly aspirin, may result in gastrointestinal bleeding.
- Iron deficient diet: Eating an iron-rich diet can help lower the risk of iron deficiency anemia. Iron-rich dietary food groups are iron-fortified foods, meat, eggs, and leafy green vegetables. Infants and children also require iron in their meals for optimal growth and development. Iron is acquired by the body on a daily basis through the foods that are consumed. However, if an individual’s iron intake is inadequate, they may develop iron deficiency gradually over time.
- Inability to absorb iron: If a portion of the small intestine has been surgically bypassed or removed, the capacity to absorb iron and other nutrients may decline. There can also be diseases, intestinal or digestive condition that reduces the intestine’s capacity to absorb nutrients from digested food, such as celiac disease, autoimmune gastritis, or inflammatory bowel disease like ulcerative colitis, or Crohn’s disease. Iron is absorbed from meals by the small intestine and is then transported into the bloodstream.
- Pregnancy: The iron stores of pregnant women must support their own increasing blood volume as well as provide hemoglobin for the developing fetus. Iron deficiency anemia develops in many pregnant women without iron supplementation.
Although iron-deficiency anemia can affect anyone, certain groups of individuals are at a higher risk of developing it. These groups include:
- Women: Iron deficiency anemia is most likely to happen to women who have menstrual cycles.
- Infants and children: Infants are born with iron from the mother who carried them through pregnancy. After four to six months, the iron supply runs exhausted. Babies who are exclusively breastfed or who consume unfortified formula may not acquire enough iron. During growth spurts, children require more iron. The child may be at risk of anemia if he or she does not eat a healthy, diversified diet.
- Vegetarians: Individuals who do not consume iron-rich foods or meat may be at a greater risk of developing iron-deficiency anemia.
- Frequent blood donors: Low hemoglobin levels caused by blood donation may be a short-term issue. People who regularly donate blood may be at a higher risk of iron deficiency anemia because blood donation depletes iron reserves. In some cases, a potential blood donor may be ineligible to donate due to low levels of hemoglobin. It is usually recommended that they consult with a doctor to determine if it is a cause for concern. One way to address this issue is by increasing the consumption of iron-rich foods.