What is iron deficiency anemia?

If you have anemia, your blood does not have enough red blood cells or hemoglobin (a protein in your red blood cells) to take oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body.  

Iron deficiency anemia is the most common type of anemia that happens when you don’t have enough iron to make healthy red blood cells. This can cause extreme tiredness, trouble breathing and poor quality of life. It can happen in both women and men, but it’s more common in women. 

What causes iron deficiency anemia?

There are many reasons your iron may be low.

  • Not eating enough foods with iron

    • Vegan/vegetarian diet
    • Diet low in foods like leafy green vegetables, eggs and meat

  • Problems absorbing iron

    • Celiac disease
    • Gastric bypass surgery
    • Removal of part of your small intestine

  • Too much blood loss

  • Other conditions

    • Pregnancy
    • Chronic kidney disease

Symptoms of iron deficiency anemia

Most people don’t have symptoms with mild iron deficiency anemia. Patients with moderate or severe iron deficiency anemia may have: 

Common symptoms

- Shortness of breath with light or little activity. 
- Irregular or excessively fast heart rate (in severe cases). 
- Unexpected fatigue, or extreme tiredness, with activity. 
- Brittle nails. 

Infants and children may experience poor appetite and growth. 

Why is iron deficiency anemia serious?

Iron deficiency anemia can range from mild to severe. Patients with mild or moderate iron deficiency anemia may appear normal without any symptoms.

When anemia is more severe, people may experience shortness of breath, dizziness, fatigue, poor ability to exercise or chest pain. Untreated iron deficiency anemia can cause many health problems, including damage to your heart and other organs. 

Testing for the cause of iron deficiency anemia

  • Blood tests to check for thyroid disease or celiac disease. 
  • Upper GI endoscopy and colonoscopy to find a source of blood loss along the GI tract.  
  • Capsule endoscopy to check for small bowel lesions. 
  • Other imaging, including a CT scan of your body. 

Treatments for iron deficiency anemia

Increase iron stores

Your health care provider may recommend iron replacement with medication taken by mouth or intravenously, directly into your vein.  

You can also boost iron absorption in your body by eating foods high in vitamin C. Consider cooking food in iron pots to add more iron to your foods.  

Change your diet

Try to eat a well-balanced diet including iron rich foods such as dark, leafy greens, nuts and seeds, seafood, meat, beans, and vitamin C-rich fruits and vegetables.

Only about 10 to 30% of the iron you eat, such as from 1 to 3 sections of an orange, is absorbed and used by your body.