Iron-deficiency anemia is a common and easily treated condition that occurs when there is not enough iron in the body. It is the most common type of anemia. In iron-deficiency anemia, the body does not have enough iron to form hemoglobin, which means there is not enough hemoglobin to carry oxygen to the whole body.
A person can have low iron levels for three reasons:
- Blood loss, either from disease or injury
- Not getting enough iron in the diet
- Not being able to absorb the iron in the diet
Many of the signs and symptoms of iron-deficiency anemia are true for all kinds of anemia.
The major symptom of all types of anemia, including iron-deficiency anemia, is fatigue (feeling tired). Fatigue is caused by having too few red blood cells to carry oxygen to the body. This lack of oxygen in the body can cause people to feel weak or dizzy, have a headache, or even pass out when changing position (for example, standing up).
Since the heart must work harder to move the reduced amount of oxygen, signs and symptoms may include shortness of breath and chest pain. This can lead to a fast or irregular heartbeat or a heart murmur.
Other signs and symptoms of anemia can include:
- Cold hands and feet as well as brittle nails
- Swelling or soreness of the tongue and cracks in the sides of the mouth
- An enlarged spleen
- Frequent infections
Symptoms of iron-deficiency anemia include unusual cravings for nonfood items such as ice, dirt, paint, or starch. This craving for nonfood items is called pica.
Another symptom of iron-deficiency anemia is developing restless legs syndrome (RLS). RLS is a disorder that causes an uncomfortable feeling in the legs that can only be relieved by movement. Sleep is difficult for people with RLS.
The goals of treating iron-deficiency anemia are to restore normal levels of red blood cells, hemoglobin, and iron as well as to treat the condition causing the anemia.
Treatment for iron-deficiency anemia is based on the cause and the severity of the condition.
- Treatment to stop bleeding: Treatment will depend on why the body is bleeding and where it is bleeding. Anemia will not improve until the bleeding is stopped.
- Treatment to increase iron in the diet: Your doctor may recommend supplements and/or a diet rich in iron, folic acid, and vitamin C to treat the anemia. The best source of iron is red meat, especially beef and liver. Chicken, turkey, pork, fish, and shellfish also are good sources of iron.
- Treatment for severe and life-threatening anemia: Severe anemia may need to be treated with hospitalization, blood transfusions, and iron injections.