Iron deficiency anaemia is when lack of iron means that the blood does not contain enough haemoglobin — the iron-based pigment in red blood cells that gives them their colour and carries oxygen. Severe and prolonged iron deficiency is needed to cause anaemia.
Iron deficiency anaemia is one of several types of anaemia. This type of anaemia is common, particularly in women near menopause, teenage girls, premature or very small babies, people on restricted diets and the elderly, and is usually easy to treat.
The reasons for getting iron deficiency anaemia include:
Iron is one of 20 minerals found in food. It is stored in your liver, spleen and bone marrow and is vital for mental and physical well-being. While most of the body’s iron is recycled from dead red blood cells, a small but essential amount comes from food. If your body does not have enough iron, it can’t make enough haemoglobin.
The symptoms of iron deficiency anaemia are caused by the lack of oxygen being supplied to the tissues. You may feel tired, short of breath when exercising, unable to concentrate, have headaches or get irritable. Your skin and the inside of your mouth may be pale. You may also be likely to pick up infections. Eventually, your nails can become spoon-shaped and brittle, the corners of your mouth may crack, and you may have difficulty swallowing. Some people also get cravings for unusual substances, such as ice or earth.
Older people with iron deficiency anaemia may get angina (pain in the chest) because the heart has to work harder to supply enough oxygen to the body.
Children with low iron levels may be slow to learn or develop.
While symptoms can be severe, in the early stages of iron deficiency you may have no symptoms or just mild fatigue.
Anaemia may be diagnosed if you have some of the symptoms listed above, but if the anaemia is not severe you may not feel anything and will be diagnosed only if you have a routine blood test. Blood tests will show how much iron is in your blood and what type of anaemia you have. Other tests may be needed to see if there is any bleeding in your stomach or bowel.
What will help the condition depends on the cause of your anaemia. However, iron deficiency anaemia is usually easily treated with iron supplements and a good diet. Your blood count will be checked regularly to make sure anaemia has not returned.
Your doctor or community health nurse can tell you how much iron you need daily. A dietitian can plan a diet for you.
The anaemia can get worse and you can feel more and more unwell, particularly if the underlying cause, such as stomach bleeding, is not treated.
For severe iron deficiency anaemia, you may need a blood transfusion.
Iron deficiency due to pregnancy may improve on its own if your diet is good; however, iron supplements may be needed.
If you have heavy periods your doctor may be able to suggest medicines to reduce blood loss.
Last Reviewed: 16 December 2009