What is Iron Deficiency Anemia? Common Symptoms and Available Treatments

Anemia is a condition that occurs when the body lacks adequate blood cells. This makes it harder for oxygen to be carried to the body’s different tissues. There are many different types of anemia, including sickle cell anemia, pernicious anemia, and iron deficiency anemia.
Iron deficiency anemia is the most common type of anemia, accounting for a href=”https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3685880/”>30 – 50% of cases/a>. Iron deficiency anemia can be easily diagnosed and treated with iron supplementation. You may experience mild symptoms, or you may not know that you have anemia. Keep reading to find out the most common signs and symptoms of iron deficiency anemia and how it is treated.

What is iron deficiency anemia?

Iron deficiency anemia occurs when your body does not have enough iron. When your body lacks adequate amounts of iron, it has difficulty producing hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is required by the red blood cells to carry oxygen to your body’s tissues. Many people experience iron deficiency for a variety of reasons. Some women experience iron deficiency during pregnancy due to increased nutritional needs. Iron deficiency can also be caused by menstrual bleeding. It can also occur if you aren’t getting enough iron in your diet from foods like beans and red meat.

Causes of iron deficiency anemia

The main causes of iron deficiency anemia include:

  • Blood loss: Your blood contains iron. So, when you experience excessive blood loss, either from an injury or other cause, you lose iron along with that blood. This is why women with heavier menstrual periods are at higher risk of iron deficiency anemia. Another common cause of blood loss is GI bleeds or stomach ulcers.
  • Pregnancy: Pregnant women can experience iron deficiency if they do not take an iron supplement. This is why most prenatal vitamins contain iron. During pregnancy, a woman’s iron stores are used to supply hemoglobin to the growing fetus, increasing the demand for iron within the body.
  • An inability to absorb iron: Some people don’t absorb iron effectively due to intestinal issues such as celiac disease. Because dietary iron is absorbed in the small intestine, you may have a hard time absorbing iron if you have intestinal issues or if you’ve had part of your small intestine surgically removed.
  • Lack of dietary iron: If you aren’t eating enough iron-rich foods like red meat and legumes, you may have an iron deficiency. Foods high in iron include spinach, shellfish, liver, red meat, and beans.

Risk factors

You may be at higher risk of developing iron deficiency anemia if you fall into one of the following categories:

  • Women are at higher risk of developing iron deficiency anemia since they bleed during menstruation.
  • Babies and young children are more likely to be diagnosed, especially if they are born at low birth weight. Children who do not eat a healthy, well-rounded diet may develop iron deficiency anemia.
  • Vegetarians and vegans are at an increased risk because animal products like red meat are high in iron. Eating a diet that does not contain meat makes you more likely to be iron deficient since meat is a bioavailable source of iron.
  • Anyone who donates blood regularly is at a higher risk of developing iron deficiency anemia since they regularly lose high volumes of blood.

Signs and symptoms of iron deficiency anemia

You may not even be aware that you have iron deficiency anemia since symptoms can be mild. As you become more deficient in iron, you will start to notice some of the following signs.

If you think you may have iron deficiency anemia, you should see your doctor to be tested and diagnosed as soon as possible. Your doctor can help guide treatment for iron deficiency anemia by prescribing iron supplements.

Diagnosis

Diagnosing iron deficiency anemia is usually fairly simple. Your doctor will want to perform a blood test to look at your hematocrit and hemoglobin. Your blood cells may also be tested for their size and color because blood cells are smaller and paler in individuals who have iron deficiency anemia. Another blood level that your doctor will look at is your ferritin level. Ferritin is a protein that aids in storing iron in the body. Lower levels of ferritin typically mean low levels of stored iron.

In diagnosing iron deficiency anemia, your doctor will want to gather plenty of information regarding your health history to determine the cause. You may have to answer questions regarding your diet and any other conditions you may have. If the cause of your anemia isn’t entirely clear, you may need additional diagnostic testing to rule out internal bleeding. This may include an endoscopy, colonoscopy, or ultrasound.

Treatment options

The main treatment for iron deficiency anemia is iron supplementation. If there is an underlying cause for your anemia, your doctor will also treat that.

Iron supplements are typically taken by mouth and can be purchased over-the-counter. Some tips for taking iron supplements include:

  • You may be told to take your iron supplements on an empty stomach to increase absorption.
  • Iron supplements should not be taken with antacids since these medications can interfere with iron absorption.
  • Taking vitamin C with iron supplements may help improve iron absorption.
  • Iron supplements can cause constipation, so you may need to take a stool softener with them or a probiotic.
  • It will likely take months of iron supplementation to restore iron levels, so be prepared to take iron supplements for an extended period.

Always follow your doctor’s instructions when taking iron supplements and other medications.

What about iron IV infusions?

Your doctor may recommend that you get an iron infusion through an IV. Iron IVs are sometimes recommended when iron levels are significantly low, and you need to restore levels quickly. If oral supplementation of iron isn’t helping bring up the levels, then an iron IV may also be recommended to you.

How do iron IVs work?

Iron infusions are easily administered through an IV. There are a couple of different types of iron infusions, including Feraheme, Ferrlecit, Injectafer, Monoferric, Triferic AVNU, and Venofer. These different types of infusions have some differences, but they are mostly used for the same purpose. The goal of the iron infusion is to replace the iron that your body is lacking. Iron infusions work much faster than oral supplements, making them ideal for individuals who need significant iron supplementation as quickly as possible.

Studies have found that iron infusions are much more effective in boosting iron levels than oral supplementation. Iron infusions also help people with iron deficiency anemia feel better quickly when experiencing symptoms from their anemia. Iron infusions for anemia will likely need to be repeated over time, and it can take up to a week for you to see your hemoglobin levels go up. Some people don’t see results for two to three weeks, but this is still faster than oral supplementation, which can take three to six months.

Are there side effects of iron infusions?

You may experience some mild side effects when getting an iron infusion. These side effects vary depending on the iron product used and the individual. It is important to say something if you start to feel side effects during the infusion. Some common side effects include nausea, vomiting, headache, dizziness, changes in blood pressure, swelling, and cold-like symptoms. There is a risk of more severe side effects, such as a severe allergic reaction, but this is very rare, only occurring in less than 1% of people.

Where can I get an iron IV?

Iron IVs are usually administered at an infusion center. Your health insurance may cover this service, but you’ll need to review your plan information to confirm. Some people go to an infusion center to replace iron, while others choose to utilize an at-home infusion service. Infusion centers can easily be found in most urban areas. These standalone centers are responsible for IV infusions only, and individuals can choose from various infusion options.

At-home IV infusions are also a great option. This medical service allows you to get IV infusions (such as iron) from the comfort of your home. Many people find at-home IV therapy incredibly convenient since it requires a minimal time commitment. At-home infusions are also a great idea if you get nervous going to medical centers.

Many people find doctors’ offices, needles, and the like very intimidating and nerve-wracking. If this is you, then opting to have your infusions delivered at home may be helpful since it allows you some control over your environment. It can also naturally ease your nerves since you’ll be in the familiarity of your home.

How to prepare for an iron infusion

Your doctor will provide you with any important instructions regarding the preparation for your iron infusion. Luckily, there is no need to fast before an iron infusion, so you can eat your usual meals beforehand. You’ll also want to dress comfortably in loose-fitting clothes that allow access to your arms for your IV to be placed. Talk with your doctor about the procedure ahead of time, so you know what to expect. Talking with your doctor will also allow the opportunity for you to have any important questions answered.

How to prevent iron deficiency anemia

To help prevent iron deficiency anemia, you should regularly eat plenty of iron-rich foods, including red meat, poultry, seafood, beans, leafy greens, dried fruit, and peas. Vitamin C can also help your body absorb iron more effectively, so you’ll want to incorporate foods that contain vitamin C into your diet. Common foods that contain vitamin C include broccoli, oranges, strawberries, peppers, kiwis, grapefruit, and tomatoes.

If you have risk factors that make you more likely to get iron deficiency anemia, then you may want to talk to your doctor about what types of supplements you need to be taking. Anyone who is pregnant and breastfeeding should take prenatal vitamins that contain iron to keep iron levels high and prevent a deficiency. If you have intestinal issues that affect your body’s iron absorption, you may also be a good candidate for preventative iron supplementation.

Can iron deficiency anemia be dangerous?

Iron deficiency anemia is usually a mild condition, but complications can arise when it is left untreated. Some potential complications of iron deficiency anemia include:

  • Heart issues such as an irregular or rapid heartbeat. When a person is anemic, the heart must pump extra blood to compensate for the lack of oxygen being carried to the body. This can cause heart failure or an enlarged heart.
  • Pregnancy complications can arise in women who have severe iron deficiency anemia. Babies may be born with a low birth weight if their mother is severely anemic. Luckily, this is easily preventable. Most prenatal vitamins contain iron but check with your doctor for a trusted brand.
  • Children and babies with severe iron deficiency anemia may suffer from growth problems and delayed development. Young children with iron deficiency anemia may also be at higher risk of infection.

Iron deficiency anemia is usually not a major cause for concern. Symptoms tend to be mild, and this type of anemia is usually easy to treat with oral supplements. However, it is important to treat iron deficiency anemia and not let it get too severe because complications are certainly possible. Certain individuals are at higher risk of being iron deficient, such as pregnant women and anyone with an intestinal issue. Getting an iron IV infusion is a great option for most people; talk with your doctor about iron infusions to see if you may be a good candidate.