Treating Iron-Deficiency Anemia in Women

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Anemia is a common type of blood disorder affecting as many as 3 million men and women in the United States. While there are several different types of anemia, iron-deficiency anemia continues to be the most common type of this condition. Anyone can be affected by iron-deficiency anemia, but women are at higher risk for developing it. In fact, about one in five women of childbearing age has iron-deficiency anemia.

Iron-deficiency anemia in women may be caused by a variety of factors, some specifically related to female reproductive organs and tissues. However, the symptoms of this condition may be so mild that they go undetected for long periods of time. Keeping track of any symptoms, and reporting them to your doctor, is key to finding out if you have this condition. Then, you can create a treatment plan with your doctor to effectively treat your anemia.

Understanding Iron-Deficiency Anemia

Inside your body, red blood cells carry oxygen from your lungs to all your other organs and tissues so they can operate effectively. To carry oxygen, each red blood cell must contain a molecule called hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is made from iron inside your body. Iron-deficiency anemia occurs when you don’t have enough iron in your system to make adequate hemoglobin. As a result, your body doesn’t get the oxygen it needs to function properly. This causes symptoms like brittle nails, cold feet and hands, fatigue, pale skin, weakness, and unusual cravings for for non-nutritious substances, like ice or dirt. More serious symptoms, like chest pain, irregular heartbeat, and shortness of breath may occur as iron-deficiency anemia gets worse.

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Women and Iron-Deficiency Anemia

Iron-deficiency anemia typically affects more women than men. Women are at higher risk for this condition because of factors including:

  • Blood loss: Blood loss from monthly menstrual periods lowers the body’s supply of available iron. The condition may be more severe if a woman has especially heavy or long-lasting periods. Women may also lose a lot of blood after they give birth, which can also contribute to iron-deficiency anemia.

  • Diet: Iron is found in many of the foods you consume each day. Some women follow diets that may prevent them from consuming adequate amounts of iron, especially if certain foods are eliminated from the diet.

  • Pregnancy: Many pregnant women experience iron-deficiency anemia because their bodies use iron to create hemoglobin for the fetus. That may not leave enough iron for the mother’s body to function regularly. Pregnant women need roughly double the amount of iron needed by women who aren’t pregnant, and about half of pregnant women have iron-deficiency anemia as a result.

  • Uterine growths: Iron-deficiency anemia in some women may be caused by non-cancerous growths in the uterus, called fibroids. These growths can bleed and may cause heavier or more frequent periods, leading to significant blood loss. In older women, iron-deficiency anemia can be a sign of cancerous growths, leading to a diagnosis of endometrial or uterine cancer.

Diagnosing and Treating Iron-Deficiency Anemia

Fortunately, diagnosing iron-deficiency anemia is relatively simple. Most doctors perform a physical examination along with blood work to measure iron levels within your body. If blood tests are normal, your doctor may recommend other tests, such as an endoscopy, to check for problems like bleeding which could contribute to your condition.

Your treatment plan depends on the severity of your condition and any underlying problems causing iron-deficiency anemia. Your options may include:

  • Dietary changes: For those with mild anemia, adding iron-rich foods to your diet may be enough.Good sources of iron include red meats, fish, dried beans, eggs, dark green leafy vegetables, and foods fortified with iron.

  • Hormonal birth control pills: If iron-deficiency anemia results from heavy menstrual periods, your doctor may prescribe hormonal birth control to lessen the amount of blood loss you experience each month.

  • Iron supplements: Pills containing iron help boost your body’s iron levels quickly. For those who can’t tolerate or don’t benefit from oral iron supplements, intravenous (IV) iron therapy can get iron levels back to where they need to be.

  • Medications: If your doctor identifies a cause of iron-deficiency anemia, such as a bleeding ulcer, she may prescribe antibiotics or other medications to correct the underlying problem.

  • Surgery: In severe cases, your doctor may recommend surgery to help control heavy menstrual bleeding. This may include removing uterine fibroids or polyps. In some cases, more intensive surgeries, like hysterectomy, are used to remove the entire uterus to prevent monthly bleeding.

Fortunately, iron-deficiency anemia is very treatable for most women. Working with your doctor to understand the cause of your anemia is the best first step toward relieving your symptoms and helping you live more comfortably. If you experience any symptoms that may indicate iron-deficiency anemia, check with your doctor to see if a simple blood test can help diagnose the problem.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2019 Feb 14
  1. Iron deficiency anemia. Mayo Clinic.
  2. Iron deficiency anemia. U.S. Department of Health and Human
  3. Iron-Deficiency Anemia. American Society of Hematology.
  4. Iron-Deficiency Anemia.
    National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
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