Iron deficiency anemia is a common type of anemia — a condition in which blood lacks adequate healthy red blood cells. Red blood cells carry oxygen to the body's tissues.
As the name implies, iron deficiency anemia is due to insufficient iron. Without enough iron, your body can't produce enough of a substance in red blood cells that enables them to carry oxygen (hemoglobin). As a result, iron deficiency anemia may leave you tired and short of breath.
You can usually correct iron deficiency anemia with iron supplementation. Sometimes additional tests or treatments for iron deficiency anemia are necessary, especially if your doctor suspects that you're bleeding internally.
Initially, iron deficiency anemia can be so mild that it goes unnoticed. But as the body becomes more deficient in iron and anemia worsens, the signs and symptoms intensify.
Iron deficiency anemia symptoms may include:
If you or your child develops signs and symptoms that suggest iron deficiency anemia, see your doctor. Iron deficiency anemia isn't something to self-diagnose or treat. So see your doctor for a diagnosis rather than taking iron supplements on your own. Overloading the body with iron can be dangerous because excess iron accumulation can damage your liver and cause other complications.
Iron deficiency anemia occurs when your body doesn't have enough iron to produce hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is the part of red blood cells that gives blood its red color and enables the red blood cells to carry oxygenated blood throughout your body. If you aren't consuming enough iron, or if you're losing too much iron, your body can't produce enough hemoglobin, and iron deficiency anemia will eventually develop.
Causes of iron deficiency anemia include:
To diagnose iron deficiency anemia, your doctor may run tests to look for:
If your blood work indicates iron deficiency anemia, your doctor may order additional tests to identify an underlying cause, such as:
Your doctor may order these or other tests after a trial period of treatment with iron supplementation.
Mild iron deficiency anemia usually doesn't cause complications. However, left untreated, iron deficiency anemia can become severe and lead to health problems, including the following:
You can reduce your risk of iron deficiency anemia by choosing iron-rich foods.
Foods rich in iron include:
Your body absorbs more iron from meat than it does from other sources. If you choose to not eat meat, you may need to increase your intake of iron-rich, plant-based foods to absorb the same amount of iron as someone who eats meat.
You can enhance your body's absorption of iron by drinking citrus juice or eating other foods rich in vitamin C at the same time that you eat high-iron foods. Vitamin C in citrus juices, like orange juice, helps your body to better absorb dietary iron.
Vitamin C is also found in:
To prevent iron deficiency anemia in infants, feed your baby breast milk or iron-fortified formula for the first year. Cow's milk isn't a good source of iron for babies and isn't recommended for infants under 1 year. Between the ages of 4 and 6 months, start feeding your baby iron-fortified cereals or pureed meats at least twice a day to boost iron intake. After one year, be sure children don't drink more than 24 ounces of milk a day. Too much milk often takes the place of other foods, including ones that are rich in iron.
These groups of people may have an increased risk of iron deficiency anemia: