Causes, Symptoms, Treatment & Tests For Iron Deficiency Anemia

Submitted on March 27, 2012

When the body does not have sufficient stores of iron, it is unable to produce the required number of red blood cells to transport oxygen-rich blood to all the tissues of the body. Iron is essential for the production of hemoglobin, the part of the red blood cell that carries the oxygen from the lungs to various tissues. Diet is the main source of iron for humans and care should be taken to include foods rich in iron in the major meals of the day. When a person eats food that is deficient in iron for a long period of time or when the body is unable to efficiently absorb iron from the food consumed, the result is often iron deficiency anemia. Iron deficiency anemia does not develop suddenly. With a prolonged faulty diet lacking in iron, a person depletes his body's reserves of iron, which eventually leads to an iron deficiency. The good news is that most iron deficiency anemia cases are curable with simple changes in the diet and with iron supplements. Iron supplements are advised six to twelve months even for patients whose hematocrit levels have reached near normal levels to allow the body to build up its stores of iron in the bone marrow.

Tests Recommended

Initially doctors call for a complete blood count to confirm their diagnosis of anemia. Besides measuring the amount of red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets in the blood, this also checks the hematocrit levels that reveal what percentage of the blood is made up of red blood cells and their size. When the hemoglobin is low, size of the red blood cells tends to be smaller. Other iron deficiency anemia tests may include a reticulocyte test to study the number of immature red blood cells in the blood, a low count indicating that the bone marrow is not producing them fast enough. A bone marrow test may be conducted in severe cases if it is deemed necessary. Ferritin, which is a protein, helps the body store the iron that is absorbed from the food in the bone marrow, spleen, etc. A serum ferritin test reveals how much of the body's stores of iron has been used up. A serum iron test measures the level of iron in the blood, but this may not reveal an accurate picture of the depleting stores of iron in the body. A stool test is ordered to ensure that there is no gradual blood loss due to diseases in the gastro intestinal tract.


While poor diet is one of the most common reasons for iron deficiency, blood loss and the body's inability to absorb iron from the food consumed are also known to be iron deficiency anemia causes. Heavy menstrual bleeding for prolonged periods is one of the reasons that women become anemic. Heavy blood loss during childbirth and its aftermath also contributes to this condition. For families living below the poverty line, foods rich in iron like meat, poultry, and fish may be beyond their means and unless they take care to include cheaper sources of iron like spinach and dark green leafy vegetables, beans , nuts, and iron-fortified cereals in their food, their diet may become iron deficient. People with gastrointestinal diseases like celiac disease and Crohn's disease or those who have undergone a gastric bypass surgery may have a reduced capacity to absorb the iron in their food.

Another not-so-obvious reason for anemia is internal bleeding, either because of a bleeding ulcer or esophageal varices caused by chronic liver disease. Dark tarry stools and blood in the stools are indicative of internal bleeding. Growing adolescents need an iron-rich diet to meet the demands of growth in their body and may be prescribed supplements if they are found to be anemic. Similarly, the demand for iron is increased in the case of pregnancy and in nursing mothers, and if the diet is inadequate and supplements are not taken to meet the demand, it may result in anemia.


Fatigue, irritability, poor appetite, and pale skin are some of the common iron deficiency anemia symptoms to look for. A routine complete blood count test may be ordered by the examining physician if he/she finds these symptoms in a patient who is a vegetarian or a person who eats a restricted diet due to some gastric disorder. Iron absorption from the diet may also be inhibited in the case of people who consume a lot of antacids with calcium.

Iron deficiency anemia symptoms in adults, children, women as well as women during pregnancy may vary in certain aspects though weakness, fatigue, and pale skin are common in all. Shortness of breath even after normal day-to-day activities is noticed among children and pregnant women. Dizziness or light headedness in women is often attributed to anemia. Children with poor appetite and lower than normal growth are often found to be deficient in iron. Chilly hands and feet, chest pain, and restless leg syndrome are other symptoms that have been observed. The craving to eat strange things like ice, dirt, or paint is associated with iron deficiency. In severe cases of anemia, brittle nails and cracks on the sides of the mouth and a swollen tongue are also seen.


Though making dietary changes to include iron-rich food in the diet is the long-term iron deficiency anemia treatment that is advised, iron supplements are prescribed initially to build up the body's reserves of iron. Iron supplements need to be taken under medical supervision as too much iron can be harmful. Irritation of the stomach, dark stools, and constipation may be some of the side effects of taking these supplements, and a doctor may prescribe alternative medication depending on the severity of the side effects. Including iron-enriched cereals, green leafy vegetables, and red meats in the diet is the best natural treatment to ensure that your body gets the iron it needs.

In cases of anemia due to internal bleeding such as ulcers or a polyp, it is best to address the cause of the anemia and arrest the bleeding, along with the treatment for anemia. In very severe cases of anemia, blood transfusion may be done to offer short-term relief by providing the body with healthy red blood cells in the form of donor blood. Injecting iron into the body through an IV line or in a muscle is considered only for those who cannot take oral iron supplements for one reason or the other and when they need long-term iron therapy.