Treatment Options for Iron-Deficiency Anemia

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Anemia is a medical condition characterized by a lack of healthy red blood cells. Red blood cells carry oxygen to all the tissues of the body, so a lack of red blood cells can cause health problems, including fatigue and shortness of breath.

Iron-deficiency anemia is one type of anemia caused by low levels of iron in the body. Iron is essential for producing healthy red blood cells. Fortunately, iron-deficiency anemia can be effectively treated in several ways.

Dietary Changes and Iron Supplementation

Most cases of iron-deficiency anemia can be treated by increasing the amount of iron in the body. When the body has sufficient iron, it will make plenty of healthy red blood cells that will transport oxygen throughout your body like they’re supposed to.

Depending on the severity of your anemia, your healthcare provider may recommend dietary changes alone, or dietary changes plus iron supplementation.

5 Things You Didn't Know About Anemia

Increasing your intake of iron-rich foods is one way to increase your iron levels. Iron-rich foods include:

  • Red meat

  • Chicken, turkey, pork, fish and shellfish

  • Dried lentils, beans and peas

  • Peanut butter

  • Tofu

  • Spinach, kale and other dark leafy greens

  • Raisins, prunes and apricots

  • Whole grain bread

Vitamin C increases the body’s ability to absorb iron, so it’s a good idea to up your intake of foods and drinks high in vitamin C as well. Good sources of vitamin C include:

  • Citrus fruits and juices (orange, grapefruit, tangerine)

  • Kiwi fruit

  • Strawberries

  • Cantaloupe

  • Broccoli

  • Peppers

  • Brussel sprouts

  • Tomatoes

  • Cabbage

  • Potatoes

  • Dark leafy greens

Your healthcare provider may also recommend iron supplementation to quickly boost your iron levels. Oral iron pills are available over-the-counter (OTC). Your healthcare provider will tell you how much to take, and will check the iron levels in your blood before and during treatment. Most people will see their red blood cell levels return to normal after two months of iron supplementation. You may need to continue iron supplementation for another six months to a year, though, to keep your iron levels steady.
It’s best to take your iron tablets on an empty stomach. However, if the tablets cause stomach irritation, a common side effect of iron supplementation, it’s okay to take your iron pills with meals.

Iron may cause your stools to turn black; this is a completely normal and harmless side effect. Iron can also cause constipation. In fact, some healthcare providers recommend regular use of stool softeners for patients who take iron supplements.

Do not take iron with antacids because antacids interfere with the absorption of iron. If you need antacids, take them at least two hours after you take your iron.

Sometimes, iron supplementation is delivered via shot or intravenous (IV) infusion. Iron shots and infusions are usually only used if the anemia is severe, if the patient cannot tolerate iron pills due to side effects, or if certain conditions, like Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, make it hard for the intestines to absorb iron pills.

Medical Treatment to Correct the Underlying Cause

Sometimes, iron-deficiency anemia is caused by a medical condition that causes bleeding or problems with iron absorption. In those cases, the best treatment is to correct the underlying cause.

For instance, some women develop iron-deficiency anemia due to heavy menstrual bleeding. Controlling monthly blood loss by using birth control pills or surgery (to treat conditions such an endometriosis) can fix iron-deficiency anemia. Iron-deficiency anemia that results from a bleeding stomach ulcer may be treated with antibiotics and acid-blocking medications.

If iron supplementation does not correct your anemia, your healthcare provider may recommend additional medical tests to determine the underlying cause of your iron-deficiency anemia.

Blood Transfusion

Rarely, iron-deficiency anemia is treated with a blood transfusion. A transfusion of healthy red blood cells will immediately correct the anemia, but it’s only a short-term treatment because it doesn’t address the underlying lack of iron in the body. Additional treatment will be needed to increase iron within the body.

Iron-deficiency anemia is a common, highly treatable medical condition. Your healthcare provider will help you determine which treatment is best for you.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2019 Oct 9

  1. How Is Iron-Deficiency Anemia Treated? National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/ida/treatment

  2. Iron-Deficiency Anemia. U.S. National Library of Medicine. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000584.htm

  3. Iron Deficiency Anemia. Mayo Clinic. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/iron-deficiency-anemia/home/ovc-20266507

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