Important Facts About Iron-Deficiency Anemia

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Anemia is when you have fewer healthy red blood cells than normal. The most important fact about anemia is that iron deficiency is the most common cause. This is because you need iron to make a protein called hemoglobin, and you need hemoglobin to carry oxygen in your red blood cells to all the cells in your body. If you have anemia, your body is not getting the amount of oxygen it needs to function normally.

Although iron-deficiency anemia is more of a health concern worldwide than in the United States, its symptoms can diminish quality of life and the condition can lead to more health problems. When you understand the risk factors, symptoms, and management of iron-deficiency anemia, you are better prepared to prevent it and seek treatment if it occurs.

5 Things You Didn't Know About Anemia

Fact: Some people are at higher risk for iron-deficiency anemia.

There are many causes of iron-deficiency anemia. You may be at higher risk if you:

  • Are a woman who is still having menstrual periods (especially heavy periods)
  • Are a woman who is pregnant or breastfeeding
  • Have had a recent major surgery or injury
  • Have a digestive problem that limits the amount of iron you can get from your diet. Digestive problems include ulcers, inflammatory bowel disease and celiac disease.

  • Have a condition that causes frequent blood loss including nosebleeds, certain cancers, hemorrhoids, and gastritis

  • Are a vegetarian
  • Frequently take heartburn medications (antacids and acid-lowering drugs)

Children may be at risk for iron deficiency during growth spurts. Children who drink lots of milk—more than 16 ounces per day—may be at risk because cow’s milk decreases iron absorbed from food. However, you can have iron deficiency without having anemia.

Fact: Iron-deficiency anemia causes many symptoms.

Every cell in your body must have oxygen to function normally. Oxygen deprivation explains the wide range of symptoms with iron-deficiency anemia. These are the symptoms to watch out for:

Fact: You can increase your iron by managing your diet.

Some foods have more iron than others. Your body absorbs iron easier from meats than other foods. Vitamin C increases your ability to absorb iron. Milk, coffee, tea, egg whites, fiber and soy decrease your ability to absorb iron.

Foods high in iron include:

  • Red meats (especially liver)
  • Poultry
  • Seafood (especially sardines, shellfish and anchovies)
  • Leafy green vegetables like spinach and broccoli
  • Beans
  • Apricots, prunes and raisins (especially dried)
  • Nuts
  • Molasses
  • Breads, cereals and pasta fortified with iron (check the labels)

Fact: Diet may not be enough to correct iron deficiency or anemia.

If your doctor diagnoses you with iron-deficiency anemia, you may need more iron than your diet can provide. The amount of iron you may need is more than the iron provided in most over-the-counter supplements. Don’t try to treat symptoms of iron-deficiency anemia on your own.

If you are at risk for iron-deficiency anemia, or if you have any of the symptoms, talk to your doctor. Blood tests can tell your doctor how much iron you need. Your doctor will prescribe the treatment.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2019 Sep 11

  1. Iron-Deficiency Anemia. American Society of Hematology.

  2. Anemia.

  3. Iron Deficiency Anemia: Get the facts.

  4. Final Recommendation Statement, Iron Deficiency Anemia: Screening, May 2006. US Preventive Services Task Force.

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