Iron deficiency anaemia is a type of anaemia that you can develop if you don't have enough iron in your body. Anaemia is a condition in which your blood can’t carry enough oxygen to meet the needs of your body.
You need iron for many important processes in your body. It’s especially important for making haemoglobin – a protein in your blood that carries oxygen.
Iron is absorbed from your food and drink by your small bowel. It’s carried in your blood to your bone marrow, where blood cells are produced. Here, the iron is combined with proteins to make haemoglobin. Any iron that doesn’t get used up is stored in your bone marrow and other organs, such as your liver.
If you don’t have enough iron, your body can’t make enough haemoglobin to meet its needs. Your red blood cells then become abnormally small and can’t carry enough oxygen to your organs and tissues. This leads to the symptoms of anaemia.
Common symptoms of all types of anaemia include:
If you have iron deficiency anaemia, you may also develop other symptoms, such as:
These symptoms may be caused by problems other than iron deficiency anaemia. If you have any of these symptoms, see your GP for advice.
If you have anaemia, your heart has to work harder to deliver oxygen to your vital organs. If left untreated, this may lead to problems with your heart. In the short term, iron deficiency can affect how much work you can do and your ability to exercise.
There are a number of possible causes of iron deficiency anaemia. Often it's a combination of these that can lead to anaemia. Some of the most common causes are listed below.
This is the most common cause of iron deficiency anaemia and includes:
You can also develop iron deficiency anaemia if you don’t get enough iron in your diet or if you don't absorb it properly. This can happen if you:
If your body has a sudden demand for extra iron, you may develop iron deficiency anaemia. This can happen if you have a growth spurt, for example, which is most common during your teenage years. This is because your body makes more red blood cells to support your developing bones, muscles and tissues. It can also happen in pregnancy, because your body needs more iron to meet the needs of your developing baby.
Your GP will ask about your symptoms and examine you. He or she may also ask about your medical history. If your GP suspects you have anaemia, he or she will ask you to have a blood test. Your blood will be sent to a laboratory and tested for the following.
You may need to have further tests to help identify the cause of your iron deficiency. Your GP may refer you to a haematologist (a doctor who specialises in identifying and treating conditions of the blood). Or your GP may refer you to see a gastroenterologist (a doctor who specialises in identifying and treating conditions that affect the digestive system). If you’re a woman and have heavy periods, your GP may refer you to a gynaecologist (a doctor who specialises in women’s reproductive health).
Your GP will try to identify why you’re deficient in iron so that he or she can treat any underlying cause.
If you're not getting enough iron in your diet, your GP will give you advice on how to get more. He or she may refer you to a dietitian. Good sources of iron include:
If you eat foods that contain vitamin C at the same time as these foods, it will help your body to absorb the iron. You could have a glass of fruit juice or some fruit with your meal, for example.
Iron supplements are the best way to make up for the shortage of iron in your body. Your GP may recommend you take iron supplements two or three times a day for around six months.
Iron supplements can cause side-effects, such as:
If you get side-effects you may be able to try another type of iron supplement. However, you can reduce your risk of getting side-effects by taking the supplements after meals.
If possible, try to eat foods that contain vitamin C at the same time as you take your iron supplement. This will help your body to absorb the iron.
Always read the patient information leaflet that comes with your iron supplements and if you have any questions, ask your GP or pharmacist for advice.
If you can't take iron supplements, or they don’t work for you, you may need an iron infusion through a drip into a vein. You can have this in a hospital outpatient department. Iron infusions can cause side-effects, such as a headache or joint pains and occasionally, allergic reactions.
If you have severe anaemia, you may need to have a blood transfusion. This is when red blood cells are given straight into your bloodstream through a small tube (cannula) put into a vein, usually in your arm.
You can reduce your risk of developing iron deficiency anaemia by eating a healthy, balanced diet that contains plenty of iron-rich foods. For most people this will provide enough iron without the need to take supplements. If you're pregnant you will need more iron – this can be twice as much as you’d normally need in the second half of your pregnancy.
Produced by Rachael Mayfield-Blake, Bupa Health Information Team, November 2013.
For answers to frequently asked questions on this topic, see FAQs.
For sources and links to further information, see Resources.
This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.
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