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Patient education: Anemia caused by low iron (The Basics)

Patient education: Anemia caused by low iron (The Basics)

What is anemia? — Anemia is the term for when a person does not have enough of something called "hemoglobin" in their blood. Hemoglobin helps red blood cells carry oxygen to all parts of the body. If your hemoglobin level is low, your body might not get all the oxygen it needs.

What is iron deficiency anemia? — Anemia can happen for a few different reasons. A common reason is not having enough iron. This is called "iron deficiency" or sometimes "low iron."

You can have too little iron because:

You have lost a large amount of blood – This can happen slowly over time, or all of a sudden. It is the most common cause of iron deficiency anemia.

Menstrual periods and pregnancy are common reasons to lose blood. In older people, tumors in the intestine can bleed. Sometimes bleeding happens so slowly that you do not see the blood in your bowel movements.

Your body cannot absorb enough iron from food – This can happen if you have had surgery on your stomach or intestines. It can also happen if you have a condition like celiac disease that affects the cells of your intestines.

You do not get enough iron in your food – This can be a problem in infants who do not get enough iron through formula, food, or supplements. It can also happen in parts of the world where people do not get enough iron in their diet.

What are the symptoms of iron deficiency anemia? — Many people with iron deficiency anemia have no symptoms. People who do have symptoms might:

Feel irritable

Feel tired or weak, especially if they try to exercise or walk up stairs

Have headaches

Have chest pain or trouble breathing

Have abnormal cravings that make them want to eat ice or substances like clay or wallpaper

Have "restless legs syndrome," where the legs feel like they need to keep moving, especially at night

Is there a test for anemia? — Yes, your doctor or nurse can test your blood for anemia. The things they most often check are the "hemoglobin" and "hematocrit." These are part of a test called the "complete blood count" or "CBC."

If blood tests show that you have anemia, or if you have symptoms of iron deficiency, your doctor or nurse will ask questions and do other blood tests. This will help them figure out what is causing your anemia and how best to treat it.

How is iron deficiency anemia treated? — Iron deficiency is treated by giving you extra iron. Eating foods that contain iron is not enough. If your anemia is severe, you might need a blood transfusion. You might also need treatment for the cause of your bleeding, but this is not very common.

Iron comes in pills, or in a liquid you can get through a thin tube that goes into a vein, called an "IV." Your doctor or nurse will talk with you about which is best for you. Iron pills need to be taken for several months. In most cases, IV iron can be given in a single treatment or a small number of treatments.

Iron pills can cause side effects such as upset stomach and constipation (too few bowel movements, or bowel movements that are hard or painful). Some people cannot get enough iron from pills. This might be the case if you have had weight loss surgery or a condition called inflammatory bowel disease, or if you are pregnant and nearing the end of your pregnancy. If you have side effects, or cannot get enough iron from pills, there are things you can do to reduce these side effects, or you might switch to IV iron.

It is also important to find out why your iron was low. If it was caused by blood loss, the cause of bleeding needs to be found. Other causes also have important treatments. Make sure to follow all instructions about testing and treatment.

If you have questions about your care, or want to know more about your options, talk to your doctor or nurse. They can help.

More on this topic

Patient education: Restless legs syndrome (The Basics)

Patient education: Anemia caused by low iron in adults (Beyond the Basics)

This topic retrieved from UpToDate on: Jan 01, 2023.
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