Iron-deficiency anemia is the most common form of anemia, a blood disorder that affects your red blood cells. Iron-deficiency symptoms develop over time. Healthcare providers may treat iron-deficiency anemia by diagnosing and treating the condition that caused anemia and/or by prescribing iron supplements.
Iron-deficiency anemia is a blood disorder that affects your red blood cells. It’s the most common form of anemia. It happens when your body doesn’t have enough iron to make hemoglobin, a substance in your red blood cell that allows them to carry oxygen throughout your body. As a result, iron deficiency may cause you to feel short of breath or tired. These symptoms develop over time. When iron deficiency is diagnosed, you may be prescribed iron supplements. Healthcare providers will also ask questions and do tests to determine why you developed iron deficiency.
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Iron-deficiency anemia symptoms happen over time. Initially, you may have low iron and feel fine or have symptoms that are so mild you don’t notice them. Left untreated, however, iron-deficiency anemia can make you feel tired and weak. You may notice pale skin and cold hands and feet. Iron-deficiency anemia can also cause you to feel dizzy or lightheaded. Occasionally, it can cause chest pain, a fast heartbeat and shortness of breath. Iron deficiency can cause you to have unusual cravings for non-food items such as ice, dirt or paper.
Normally, your body brings in a steady flow of iron from the food you eat. Your body stores excess iron so it’s available as needed to make hemoglobin. Iron-deficiency anemia develops when your body uses the iron stores faster than they can be refilled, or when the flow of iron into your system has slowed. This occurs in three stages:
Almost anyone can develop iron-deficiency anemia. That said, women who have menstrual cycles or who are pregnant or breastfeeding are more likely to develop iron-deficiency anemia than women who have gone through menopause or men. Here are other groups of people who have an increased risk of developing iron-deficiency anemia:
Losing blood is the most common reason people develop iron-deficiency anemia. Some common reasons include:
People can develop iron-deficiency anemia because they don’t get enough iron from food or they have conditions that limit the amount of iron their bodies absorb.
There are several reasons why your body may not absorb iron, including:
Iron-deficiency symptoms develop over time and may initially be mild but can worsen over time if not treated. Common iron-deficiency symptoms include:
Some common signs you may have this condition include:
Iron-deficiency anemia is diagnosed with blood tests. If you have iron-deficiency anemia, your healthcare provider may do additional tests to find the cause. Steps your healthcare provider might take to diagnose iron-deficiency anemia include:
Iron deficiency can be treated with iron supplements, usually as pills and sometimes with an IV. Your healthcare provider will try to identify why you’re low in iron. Most of the time, people have iron-deficiency anemia because they’re losing blood or they’re not absorbing iron in their diet. Healthcare providers treat iron-deficiency anemia by diagnosing and, if possible, treating the underlying cause while treating the iron deficiency.
Everyone’s situation may be a bit different. Your healthcare provider may prescribe iron supplements to restore iron lost from excessive bleeding or if you’re not getting enough iron from food. If you have a condition that keeps you from absorbing iron, they may prescribe intravenous (IV) iron supplements.
Sometimes, iron supplements can cause constipation or make your poop look dark or black. If you’re having trouble with constipation, your healthcare provider will have suggestions for ways to soften it.
It can take three to six weeks before iron supplements begin building up your iron reserves. Your healthcare provider will monitor your iron levels and let you know when your iron levels have improved. Even then, they may recommend taking iron supplements for at least six months so your body can replenish its iron stores.
Most people develop iron-deficiency anemia because they’re losing blood or not absorbing it from their diet. If you think you have these issues, ask your healthcare provider what you can do to avoid iron-deficiency anemia.
You can reduce your risk by eating an iron-rich diet. Here are some iron-rich food groups to consider:
If you follow a vegan or vegetarian diet, look for iron-fortified breads and cereals. There are several non-meat options for boosting your iron intake, like beans, tofu, dried fruits and dark leafy greens. You may want to take an iron supplement. Ask your healthcare provider about appropriate iron supplements so you don’t overload on iron.
Healthcare providers typically treat iron-deficiency anemia by prescribing iron supplements and suggesting ways you can add iron to your diet. There are times, however, when iron deficiency anemia is a symptom of a serious medical condition. You may be losing blood or your body can’t absorb iron. If that’s your situation, your healthcare provider will focus on treating the condition. Your healthcare provider is your best resource for information.
Depending on your situation, you should see your healthcare provider regularly so they can monitor your iron levels and your overall health. You might see your healthcare provider every three months for a year or longer.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
We all have days when our daily responsibilities outweigh the amount of energy we have to get things done. But if you have feelings of fatigue that you just can't shake, talk to your healthcare provider. They’ll find out what’s draining your energy. Iron-deficiency anemia symptoms develop over time. Left untreated, iron-deficiency anemia can cause serious medical issues. Fortunately, most people who have iron-deficiency anemia feel better after taking iron supplements.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 04/21/2022.
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