Anemia - iron deficiency

Anemia - iron deficiency


Anemia is a condition where red blood cells are not providing adequate oxygen to body tissues. There are many types and causes of anemia. Iron deficiency anemia is a decrease in the number of red cells in the blood caused by too little iron. (See also Iron-deficiency anemia - children.)

Alternative Names

Anemia - iron deficiency


Iron deficiency anemia is the most common form of anemia. Approximately 20% of women, 50% of pregnant women, and 3% of men are iron deficient. Iron is an essential component of hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying pigment in the blood. Iron is normally obtained through the food in your diet and by recycling iron from old red blood cells. Without it, the blood cannot carry oxygen effectively -- and oxygen is needed for the normal functioning of every cell in the body.

The causes of iron deficiency are too little iron in the diet, poor absorption of iron by the body, and loss of blood (including from heavy menstrual bleeding). It can also be related to lead poisoning in children.

Anemia develops slowly after the normal stores of iron have been depleted in the body and in the bone marrow. Women, in general, have smaller stores of iron than men and have increased loss through menstruation, placing them at higher risk for anemia than men.

In men and postmenopausal women, anemia is usually caused by gastrointestinal blood loss associated with ulcers, the use of aspirin or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDS), or certain types of cancer (esophagus, stomach, colon).

High-risk groups include:

  • Women of child-bearing age who have blood loss through menstruation
  • Pregnant or lactating women who have an increased requirement for iron
  • Infants, children, and adolescents in rapid growth phases
  • People with a poor dietary intake of iron

Risk factors related to blood loss are peptic ulcer disease, long term aspirin use, and colon cancer


  • Pale skin color
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Weakness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sore tongue
  • Brittle nails
  • Unusual food cravings (called pica)
  • Decreased appetite (especially in children)
  • Headache - frontal
  • Blue tinge to sclerae (whites of eyes)
Note: There may be no symptoms if anemia is mild.

Exams and Tests

  • Low hematocrit and hemoglobin (red blood cell measures)
  • Small red blood cells
  • Low serum ferritin
  • Low serum iron level
  • High iron binding capacity (TIBC) in the blood
  • Blood in stool (visible or microscopic)


The cause of the deficiency must be identified, particularly in older patients who are most susceptible to intestinal cancer.

Oral iron supplements are available (ferrous sulfate). The best absorption of iron is on an empty stomach, but many people are unable to tolerate this and may need to take it with food. Milk and antacids may interfere with absorption of iron and should not be taken at the same time as iron supplements. Vitamin C can increase absorption and is essential in the production of hemoglobin.

Supplemental iron is needed during pregnancy and lactation because normal dietary intake rarely supplies the required amount.

The hematocrit should return to normal after 2 months of iron therapy, but the iron should be continued for another 6 to 12 months to replenish the body's iron stores, which are contained mostly in the bone marrow.

Intravenous or intra-muscular iron is available for patients who can't tolerate oral forms.

Iron-rich foods include raisins, meats (liver is the highest source), fish, poultry, eggs (yolk), legumes (peas and beans), and whole grain bread.

Outlook (Prognosis)

With treatment, the outcome is likely to be good. In most cases the blood counts will return to normal in 2 months.

Possible Complications

There are usually no complications. However, iron deficiency anemia may recur, so regular follow-up is encouraged. Children with this disorder may be more susceptible to infection.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call for an appointment with the health care provider if symptoms suggestive of this disorder develop or if blood is noted in the stool.


Everyone's diet should include adequate amounts of iron. Red meat, liver, and egg yolks are important sources of iron. Flour, bread, and some cereals are fortified with iron. If you aren't getting enough iron in your diet (uncommon in the U.S.), iron supplements should be taken.

During periods of increased requirements, such as pregnancy and lactation, increase dietary intake or take iron supplements.

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