Iron deficiency means you have too little iron in your body. It’s a leading cause of anemia, a condition in which you can’t make enough healthy red blood cells. If you’ve been feeling exhausted, you may be wondering, “Do I have anemia?”
If your doctor suspects you have anemia, they may want to test your red blood cell count and also your iron levels.
Here’s what you should know about iron-deficiency anemia, including how to prevent it and how to treat it.
What Is Iron Deficiency?
Iron is an essential mineral you must get through your diet or through supplements (if needed). Your body needs enough iron for proper growth, brain development, and certain hormone production.
Iron’s most important job is making healthy red blood cells. It’s an essential component of hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen throughout your body. Since every organ in your body needs oxygen to function, an iron deficiency can have widespread effects.
Iron deficiency anemia develops when your iron stores get too low. If you don’t treat an iron deficiency, it can cause more severe problems like:
- Developmental delays in children.
- Pregnancy complications.
- Heart problems.
Your body stores most of your iron in the hemoglobin in your red blood cells. So a sign of iron deficiency is a low hemoglobin level. You might also have a low hematocrit, the percentage of red blood cells in your blood sample.
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Iron Deficiency Symptoms
You might not notice iron deficiency symptoms if you’re only slightly low in iron. Symptoms worsen as your iron levels drop and anemia worsens.
Anemia signs and symptoms include:
- Pale or yellowish skin.
- Shortness of breath, especially with activity.
- Dizziness or fainting.
- A rapid heartbeat.
- Pounding in your ears.
- Brittle nails or hair loss.
Iron deficiency usually happens slowly, so the symptoms develop slowly. It’s easy to overlook them or confuse iron deficiency symptoms with other health conditions. Make sure you talk to your doctor about these symptoms, especially if they’re getting worse.
Causes of Iron Deficiency
Iron deficiency is relatively common, especially among young children and women of reproductive age. Your iron stores can drop if you don’t get enough iron through your diet. These other factors can further increase your risk of iron deficiency anemia:
- Pregnancy. During pregnancy, your blood volume increases, so you need extra iron to make more healthy red blood cells.
- Blood loss. Losing too much blood from heavy menstrual periods, surgery, or bleeding in your GI tract causes low iron levels. You can also lose too much blood if you frequently donate blood.
- Certain health conditions. Kidney disease, cancer, or autoimmune diseases like lupus, can reduce your red blood cell counts.
- Problems absorbing iron from your diet. Certain medications and chronic health conditions like IBD, celiac disease, or heart failure can impair iron absorption.
If you have anemia because of a chronic health condition, working with your health care team is crucial. They can identify and treat the root cause.
Preventing and Treating Iron Deficiency
Most healthy people can maintain normal iron levels by eating plenty of iron-rich foods. Try adding a variety of these high-iron foods to your diet:
- Iron-fortified cereals (those that provide 100% of the Daily Value for iron per serving).
- Beans (white, kidney, chickpeas, lentils)
- Red meat, poultry, or fish.
- Leafy green vegetables (spinach, kale).
- Baked potatoes.
- Dark chocolate.
- Whole wheat bread.
A registered dietitian can help you plan a healthy diet with more iron-rich foods. You can also add a multivitamin and mineral supplement with iron to help prevent iron deficiency.
Vitamin C helps your body absorb more iron from your diet. So try to combine iron-rich foods or your iron supplement with these vitamin C-rich foods:
- Orange juice or oranges.
- Grapefruit juice or grapefruit.
- Sweet red peppers.
If your iron stores are very low, your doctor may recommend an iron supplement to correct iron deficiency anemia. “Taking iron supplements every other day, rather than every day, actually improves absorption as well,” says Stacy Bartlett, MD, Squirrel Hill Family Medicine. An iron supplement provides significantly more iron than a regular multivitamin and mineral supplement. This can help increase your iron levels faster, and you should start to feel better in about a week.
Make sure you ask how much iron to take and how often to take it because too much is harmful. Also, you shouldn’t take iron supplements unless your health care provider recommends them.
Taking iron pills can have side effects like:
- Upset stomach
- Dark stools
If iron side effects are severe, talk to your health care provider. They might recommend a different form of iron that’s gentler on your stomach.
Some health conditions may prevent you from absorbing iron from food or supplements. In that case, your doctor might recommend intravenous (IV) iron infusions. Iron given through an IV goes directly into your blood, so your GI tract doesn’t have to absorb it.
You may need a blood transfusion if severe blood loss causes iron deficiency anemia. That helps restore your iron.
It’s easy to miss mild iron deficiency symptoms until you develop anemia. If you feel exhausted, out of breath, or have other symptoms, talk to your doctor so they can check your iron.
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