Iron deficiency is the most common cause of anemia, a condition that occurs when you have too few healthy red blood cells. Left untreated, iron deficiency anemia can lead to organ and tissue damage.
Iron Deficiency Anemia Causes and Symptoms
As the name suggests, iron-deficiency anemia is when your body is not getting or processing enough iron to make hemoglobin, which helps red blood cells carry oxygen to all your organs and cells. It may be caused by the following:
- A diet low in iron, which is a mineral found in meat, fish, beans, eggs and leafy green vegetables
- Rapid physical growth, such as during infancy, early childhood and adolescence
- Pregnancy, which requires extra iron
- Heavy menstrual cycles
- Internal bleeding, such as from a peptic ulcer, hemorrhoids, a polyp in the intestines or colorectal cancer
- Intestinal disorders, such as celiac disease, that impact your body's ability to absorb iron and other nutrients from food
- Having had surgery to remove part of your stomach or intestines, which affects the absorption of nutrients
In the early stages, iron deficiency may not cause any symptoms or they may be so mild you don't notice them. As the condition worsens, you may experience a variety of symptoms, including the following:
- Shortness of breath (dyspnea)
- Pale skin
- Cold hands and feet
- Irregular heartbeat
- Brittle nails
- Sore tongue
- Enlarged spleen
- Restless leg syndrome
- Desire to eat nonfood items such as ice, dirt or paint (called pica)
If you have any of these symptoms and they don't go away, call your primary care doctor. If you have very low iron levels or your anemia is not responding to treatment, you may need the expertise of a hematologist.
Iron Deficiency Anemia Treatment at Rush
At Rush, we will treat your iron deficiency anemia using one or more of the following options:
- Iron supplementation: In addition to taking daily iron supplements, you may need IV treatment, if you have very low iron levels. Receiving a transfusion of red blood cells via IV can increase iron in the blood and improve your anemia right away, although it is only a short-term solution.
- Dietary adjustments, such as the following:
- More meat or seafood to help increase iron levels
- Other food sources of iron, including tofu, beans, prune juice, dried fruits, dark leafy vegetables such as spinach, and iron-fortified bread and cereal
- More vitamin C to help your body absorb more iron
- Diagnosis and treatment of underlying conditions that are causing excessive bleeding or difficulty absorbing iron, including the following:
- Medications that help heal peptic ulcers
- Surgery to remove polyps or growths in your intestines
- Management of celiac disease to help ensure iron is absorbed
Rush Excellence in Iron Deficiency Anemia Care
- Expert care based on the latest science: At Rush, hematologists who treat children and adults with benign blood disorders are also involved in clinical and laboratory research. This gives them a deep understanding of what causes anemia and how to best treat it.
- Comprehensive specialty care: A number of different medical conditions could be causing your iron-deficiency anemia, from celiac disease and ulcers to uterine fibroids that result in heavy menstrual bleeding. As a major academic health system, Rush has experienced physicians in every specialty. Your hematologist will refer you to a Rush specialist who can treat your underlying problem.
- Nutrition advice that works for you: Whether you are a vegetarian, vegan or junk food lover, our dietitians can help you design a diet that will ensure you get enough iron and other nutrients.