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Iron Deficiency Anemia: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Instructor: Jayne Yenko

Jayne has taught health/nutrition and education at the college level and has a master's degree in education.

Feeling fatigued and weak? Or maybe having bizarre cravings? These could be symptoms of iron-deficiency anemia, a common nutrient deficiency, particularly among pre-menopausal women. It also affects men and children. Find out how prevalent this deficiency is, what causes it, and how to treat it.

Introduction

Iron deficiency anemia is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies world-wide. It is often caused by a lack of iron in the body, brought about by low-iron diets or loss of blood. Parasitic worms are a major cause of iron deficiency in third world countries as these parasites cause internal bleeding.

Iron is present in all cells of the body. One of iron's most important duties is to carry oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. Sixty-five to 75 percent of iron in the body is contained in hemoglobin, or the substance that carries oxygen in red blood cells and gives the cells their red color. Myoglobin, which takes oxygen to muscle cells, also contains iron. Iron is also used to help produce energy.

Normal Red Blood Cells
Normal Red Blood Cells

Iron Deficient Blood Cells
Iron Deficient Blood Cells

Causes

Iron deficiency can happen if you aren't getting enough iron in your diet or you are losing too much iron. The reasons for this include:

• Blood loss. Iron is a component of blood, so if you're bleeding, you are losing iron. This is particularly a problem for women with heavy periods. Having peptic ulcers or a hiatal hernia can cause constant slow bleeding.

• Low iron diet. Eating a vegan diet, which is low in iron-rich foods, can cause a lack of enough iron. Poor dietary habits can as well.

• Malabsorption issues. If you have celiac disease, or another problem that prevents nutrients from being absorbed, low iron levels can result.

• Pregnancy. During pregnancy, a woman's blood volume increases, and the iron needs of the fetus compound the problem. Iron supplements (often referred to as 'horse pills') are strongly recommended.

Symptoms

A mild iron deficiency may cause symptoms, but they probably won't be noticed. As the condition gets worse, the symptoms will definitely become noticeable, and intrude on one's life and ability to function. Some of these symptoms are:

Extreme fatigue, just getting out of bed makes you want to get back in

Pale skin, you look like you haven't seen the sun in weeks

Weakness, you want me to lift that?

Shortness of breath, forget taking the stairs, the elevator is so much easier

Chest pain, is this what a heart attack feels like?

Headache, oh, my aching head

Dizziness or lightheadedness, is the room spinning or is it just me?

Cold hands and feet, don't put your cold feet on my back!

Soreness of your tongue, soft foods, please

Brittle nails, another manicure ruined

Pica, the unusual cravings for non-nutritive substances, such as ice or dirt - are you really going to eat that?

Treatment

Your medical professional is going to take blood to first look at the cells. If iron-deficient anemia is present, the red blood cells will be small and pale. Second, the medical professional will want to know the amount of blood made up of red blood cells. This is called hematocrit. The normal range for women is between 34.9 and 44.5 percent, and 38.8 and 50 percent for men. Next, they'll look at the hemoglobin levels. Normal ranges are between 12 and 17.5 grams of hemoglobin per deciliter of blood. The last test is for ferritin, which is a protein that assists with iron storage in the body. Low levels indicate low stores of iron.

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