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Iron deficiency anemia occurs when your
body doesn't have enough iron.
Iron is important because it helps
you get enough oxygen throughout your body. Your body uses iron to make
hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is a part of your red blood
cells. Hemoglobin carries oxygen through your body. If you do not have enough
iron, your body makes fewer and smaller
red blood cells. Then your body has less hemoglobin, and you cannot get enough
deficiency is the most
common cause of
Iron deficiency anemia is caused by low levels of
iron in the body. You might have low iron levels because you:
You may not notice the symptoms of anemia, because it develops slowly and
the symptoms may be mild. In fact, you may not notice them until your anemia
gets worse. As anemia gets worse, you may:
Babies and small children who have anemia may:
Anemia in children must be treated so that mental and
behavior problems do not last long.
If you think you have anemia,
see your doctor. Your doctor will do a physical exam and ask you questions
about your medical history and your symptoms. Your doctor will take some of
your blood to run tests. These tests may include a
complete blood count to look at your red blood cells
and an iron test that shows how much iron is in your blood.
doctor may also do tests to find out what is causing your anemia.
Your doctor will
probably have you take iron supplement pills and eat foods rich in iron to treat your anemia. Most people
begin to feel better after a few days of taking iron pills. But do not stop
taking the pills even if you feel better. You will need to keep taking the
pills for several months to build up the iron in your body.
your doctor finds an exact cause of your anemia, such as a bleeding ulcer, your
doctor will also treat that problem.
If you think you have anemia,
do not try to treat yourself. Do not take iron pills on your own without seeing
your doctor first. If you take iron pills without talking with your doctor
first, the pills may cause you to have too much iron in your blood, or even
iron poisoning. Your low iron level may be caused by a serious problem, such as
a bleeding ulcer or colon cancer. These other problems need different treatment
than iron pills.
You can get the most benefit from iron pills if
you take them with vitamin C or drink orange juice. Do not take your iron pills
with milk, caffeine, foods with high fiber, or antacids.
prevent anemia by eating foods that contain iron every day. Iron-rich
foods include meats, vegetables, and whole grains such as iron-fortified cereals.
You can prevent anemia in babies and children by following recommendations for feeding infants and making sure babies and children get enough iron.
If you are pregnant, you can prevent anemia by taking
prenatal vitamins. Your doctor will give you prenatal vitamins that include
iron. Your doctor will also test your blood to see if you are anemic. If you
are anemic, you will take a higher-dose iron pill.
Learning about iron deficiency anemia:
iron deficiency anemia may not cause noticeable
anemia is severe, symptoms may include:
Other signs may include:
Babies and small children with iron deficiency anemia may
not grow as expected and may have delays in skills such as walking and talking.
Children may be irritable and have a short attention span. These problems
usually go away when the deficiency is treated. If it is not treated, mental
and behavior problems may be permanent.
If your doctor suspects
iron deficiency anemia, he or she will do a physical
exam and ask about your symptoms and your medical history. Your doctor will
want to know about:
Your doctor will recommend tests to check for low iron
anemia. Possible tests include:
If your doctor suspects that
bleeding in your stomach or intestines is causing your anemia, you
will have tests to determine the cause of the bleeding. These may
If blood tests don't find the problem, you may need a test
called a bone marrow aspiration. Bone marrow aspiration removes a small amount
of bone marrow fluid through a needle inserted into the bone. Because iron is
stored in the bone marrow, this test can provide a good idea of how much iron
is in the body. But bone marrow aspirations are not done very often.
iron deficiency anemia focuses on increasing your iron
stores so they reach normal levels and identifying and controlling any
conditions that caused the
anemia. If your anemia is caused by:
Taking iron supplement pills and getting enough iron in your food will correct most cases of iron deficiency anemia. You
usually take iron pills 1 to 3 times a day. To get the most benefit from the
pills, take them with vitamin C (ascorbic acid) pills or orange juice. Vitamin
C helps your body absorb more iron.
Most people start to feel
better within a few days of beginning treatment. Even though you feel better,
you will need to keep taking the pills for several months to build up your iron
stores. Sometimes it takes up to 6 months of treatment with iron supplements
before iron levels return to normal.
You may need to get iron through an IV if you have problems with the iron pills or if your body doesn't absorb enough
iron from food or iron pills.
anemia is severe, your doctor may give you a
blood transfusion to correct your anemia quickly and
then have you start on iron supplement pills and a diet high in iron.
To watch your condition, your doctor will use blood tests, such as:
Usually, people can eliminate iron deficiency anemia by
taking iron as pills and adding iron in their diet. If your anemia is
not corrected with these treatments, your doctor might do more testing to look
for other causes of your anemia, such as new bleeding or difficulty absorbing
iron from pills. These tests may be the same as those initially used to
diagnose your anemia.
If you suspect you have iron
deficiency anemia, do not take iron pills without consulting your doctor.
Taking iron pills could delay the diagnosis of a serious problem such as
colorectal cancer or a bleeding ulcer.
If the anemia is not due to
iron deficiency, taking iron pills will not relieve the anemia and could cause
poisoning (iron toxicity). It could also cause an
iron overload condition called
hemochromatosis, especially in people who have a
genetic tendency toward storing too much iron in their bodies.
some people, iron pills cause stomach discomfort, nausea, diarrhea,
constipation, and black stool. Iron is best absorbed if taken on an empty
stomach. But if you are having stomach problems, you may need to take the pills
with food. Do not take iron pills with milk, caffeinated drinks, or antacids.
If the side effects of your iron pills make you feel too sick, talk to your
doctor. He or she may know of another type of iron pill you can take.
If you get iron through an IV, there is a risk of an
If you have
iron deficiency anemia, talk with your doctor about
taking iron supplement pills and
getting enough iron in your food each day. Iron-rich
foods include meats, vegetables, and whole grains such as iron-fortified cereals.
To get the most benefit from your iron
pills and the iron content of your food:
Do not take your iron pills:
In some people, iron supplements can cause stomach
discomfort, nausea, diarrhea, constipation, and black stool. Iron is best
absorbed if taken on an empty stomach. But if you are having stomach problems,
you may need to take the pills with food. If the side effects of your iron
pills make you feel too sick, talk to your doctor. He or she may know of
another type of iron pill you can take.
If you think you have
anemia, do not take iron pills without talking with your doctor. If the iron
loss is from intestinal bleeding, taking iron pills may delay the diagnosis of
a serious problem such as a bleeding ulcer or colon cancer. If the anemia is
not due to iron deficiency, taking iron pills will not relieve the anemia and
may cause poisoning (iron toxicity) or iron overload (hemochromatosis).
Keep iron tablets out
of the reach of small children. Iron poisoning can be very dangerous.
You can prevent anemia in babies and children by following recommendations for feeding infants and by making sure babies and children get enough iron.
If you are pregnant, your doctor will test your iron level
at your first prenatal visit, and he or she will give you prenatal vitamins
that include iron (30 mg a day). If you are anemic, your doctor will give you a
higher-dose pill to take.
The website FamilyDoctor.org is sponsored by the American Academy of Family Physicians. It offers information on adult and child health conditions and healthy living. There are topics on medicines, doctor visits, physical and mental health issues, parenting, and more.
The Iron Disorders Institute is a national voluntary
health agency that provides information about iron disorders such as
hemochromatosis, acquired iron overload, sickle cell anemia, thalassemia, iron
deficiency anemia, and anemia of chronic disease. The organization works with a
scientific review board as well as various medical professional groups. A free
newsletter, idInsight, is available.
This website is sponsored by the Nemours Foundation. It
has a wide range of information about children's health—from allergies and
diseases to normal growth and development (birth to adolescence). This website
offers separate areas for kids, teens, and parents, each providing
age-appropriate information that the child or parent can understand. You can
sign up to get weekly emails about your area of interest.
The National Anemia Action Council (NAAC) helps raise awareness of the public and health professionals about the prevalence, symptoms, and treatment options of anemia. This nonprofit organization provides information to help improve the lives of people with anemia. Through education, the NAAC helps improve detection, evaluation, treatment, and patient health.
The U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
(NHLBI) information center offers information and publications about preventing
The Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS) supports research and
disseminates research results in the area of dietary supplements. The ODS also
provides advice to other federal agencies regarding research results related to
Other Works Consulted
American Academy of Pediatrics (2010). Diagnosis and prevention of iron deficiency and iron-deficiency anemia in infants and young children (0–3 years of age). Pediatrics, 126(5): 1040–1050. Available online: http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/cgi/content/full/126/5/1040.
Hillman RS, et al. (2011). Iron-deficiency anemia. In RS Hillman et al., eds. Hematology in Clinical Practice, 5th ed., pp. 53–64. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Means RT (2012). Red blood cell function and disorders of iron metabolism. In EG Nabel, ed., ACP Medicine, section 15, chap. 21. Hamilton, ON: BC Decker.
Paulman P (2011). Iron deficiency. In ET Bope, et al., eds., Conn's Current Therapy 2011, pp. 393–395. Philadelphia: Saunders.
U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (2006). Screening and supplementation for iron deficiency anemia. Available online: http://www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/uspstf/uspsiron.htm.
November 27, 2012
E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine & Brian Leber, MDCM, FRCPC - Hematology
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