What is iron deficiency anemia?
Anemia occurs when you have a decreased level of hemoglobin in your red blood cells (RBCs). Hemoglobin is the protein in your RBCs that is responsible for carrying oxygen to your tissues.
Iron deficiency anemia is the most common type of anemia, and it occurs when your body doesn’t have enough of the mineral iron. Your body needs iron to make hemoglobin. When there isn’t enough in your blood stream, the rest of your body can’t get the amount of oxygen it needs.
While the condition may be common, many people don’t know they have iron deficiency anemia. It’s possible to experience the symptoms for years without ever knowing the cause.
In women of childbearing age, the most common cause of deficiency anemia is a loss of iron in the blood due to heavy menstruation or pregnancy. A poor diet or certain intestinal diseases that affect how the body absorbs iron can also cause iron deficiency anemia.
Doctors normally treat the condition with supplements or changes to diet.
The symptoms of iron deficiency anemia can be mild at first, and you may not even notice them. According to the American Society of Hematology (ASH), most people don’t realize they have mild anemia until they have a routine blood test.
The symptoms of moderate to severe deficiency anemia include:
- general fatigue
- pale skin
- shortness of breath
- strange cravings to eat items that aren’t food, such as dirt, ice, or clay
- a tingling or crawling feeling in the legs
- tongue swelling or soreness
- cold hands and feet
- fast or irregular heartbeat
- brittle nails
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According to the ASH, deficiency is the most common cause of anemia. There are many reasons why a person might become deficient in . These include:
Pregnancy or blood loss due to menstruation
Heavy menstrual bleeding and blood loss during childbirth are the most common causes of deficiency anemia in women of childbearing age.
Certain medical conditions can cause internal bleeding, which can lead to iron deficiency anemia. Examples include an ulcer in your stomach, polyps in the colon or intestines, or colon cancer. Regular use of pain relievers, such as aspirin, can also cause bleeding in the stomach.
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Certain disorders or surgeries that affect the intestines can also interfere with how your body absorbs . Even if you get enough iron in your diet, celiac disease or intestinal surgery such as gastric bypass may limit the amount of your body can absorb.
If a woman has endometriosis she may have heavy blood loss that she can not see because it is hidden in the abdominal or pelvic area.
Anemia is a common condition and can occur in both men and women of any age and from any ethnic group. Some people may be at greater risk of iron deficiency anemia than others, including:
- women of childbearing age
- pregnant women
- people with poor diets
- people who donate blood frequently
- infants and children, especially those born prematurely or experiencing a growth spurt
- vegetarians who don’t replace meat with another iron-rich food
If you’re at risk of iron deficiency anemia, talk to your doctor to determine if blood testing or dietary changes could benefit you.