Iron deficiency anemia is a condition where the blood has an insufficient number of red blood cells; it occurs when there is not enough iron in the body to produce them. The body uses iron to make hemoglobin, which is the primary carrier of oxygen within red blood cells. Since red blood cells are the carriers of oxygen throughout the body, not enough oxygen reaches the tissues of the body. This results in the two most common symptoms: tiredness and lethargy (lack of energy). The primary natural sources of iron are meat, dried fruit, and some vegetables.
What Are The Symptoms?
The most common symptoms of iron deficiency anemia include:
- lethargy (lack of energy)
- shortness of breath (dyspnoea)
- palpitations (irregular heartbeat)
Less common symptoms include:
- tinnitus, the perception of a noise in one or both ears, such as a ringing in your ears or in your head
- a sore tongue
- pica, a desire to eat non-food items, such as ice or clay
- an altered sense of taste
- difficulty swallowing
- feeling itchy
You may notice additional signs of iron deficiency anemia, such as:
- painful open sores in the corners of your mouth
- a pale complexion
- dry, flaking nails
- spoon-shaped nails
- an abnormally smooth tongue
What causes iron deficiency anemia?
As mentioned above, iron deficiency is a condition where the body (the blood) does not contain enough iron to effectively convey oxygen to the body’s tissues.
There are several potential causes for this condition.
Blood loss in the gastrointestinal tract.
The most common cause of iron deficiency anemia is bleeding in the stomach and intestines (gastrointestinal tract). There are several causes of gastrointestinal bleeding:
- Heavy, prolonged use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory pain-killing drugs (NSAIDs) such as aspirin and ibuprofen.
- Bleeding stomach or intestinal ulcers. An ulcer is an open sore in the lining of the stomach or intestines, caused when the acid in the stomach eats into and through the stomach or intestinal lining. This can cause significant blood loss, leading to iron deficiency anemia.
- Cancer. Rarely, gastrointestinal bleeding can be caused by cancer of the stomach or colon.
Causes in women
The most common causes of iron deficiency anemia in women are:
- Menorrhagia, which is the name for a condition whereby women experience unusually or particularly heavy menstrual bleeding over several consecutive cycles. The heaviness of the bleeding causes the overall blood level to decline, triggering iron deficiency anemia.
- Pregnancy. During pregnancy, the body requires extra iron to deliver the required amount of blood, oxygen and nutrients to the baby. Many women experience iron deficiency anemia because of this diversion of blood to the baby.
What complications can arise from iron deficiency anemia?
Generally, most people do not develop any serious complication from their iron deficiency anemia. But some people do, and here are the most common complications:
- Tired/lethargic: Iron deficiency anemia can make you feel tired, weak and lethargic, making it more difficult to be productive and effective in the workplace. You might feel abnormally sleepy, and find it difficult to exercise normally.
- Weakened immune system. Severe iron deficiency anemia can weaken the immune system, making you more susceptible to colds, the flu, and other illnesses, as well as infections.
- Heart/lung complications. Severe anemia cases are at risk of developing tachycardia, which is an abnormally fast heartbeat, or heart failure, where the heart becomes unable to pump blood at its peak level of effectiveness. It has to work overtime to get the levels of oxygen where they should be.
- Pregnancy complications. Women with severe iron deficiency anemia who become pregnant increase their risk for developing pregnancy complications during pregnancy and have a higher risk for post-natal depression.