The Difficulties of Living with Iron Deficiency Anemia

Iron deficiency anemia is a common type of anemia — a condition in which blood lacks adequate healthy red blood cells.
The Difficulties of Living with Iron Deficiency Anemia
Iron-Deficiency Anemia. Image/Shutterstock

Anemia is a condition in which the body doesn’t have enough healthy red blood cells. Red blood cells help in transporting oxygen to the body tissues. As the name implies, iron deficiency anemia results from the lack of iron in the body. Iron is responsible for producing hemoglobin, the part of the red blood cell that gives blood its red color and allows for the transportation of oxygen throughout the body.

Anemia is the most common blood condition in the United States. Iron deficiency anemia is the most common type of anemia and one of the biggest contributors to the global disease burden. Anemia affects 1.62 billion people worldwide (24%), and half of these cases are thought to be iron deficiency. The prevalence rate is highest among preschool-age children, while men are the least affected by iron deficiency anemia.

Many people with iron deficiency anemia are unaware, and it’s possible to live with the symptoms for a long time without knowing the cause. Living with iron deficiency can be difficult for people with severe symptoms. Iron supplements are prescribed for treating cases of iron deficiency.

Causes of Iron Deficiency Anemia

Insufficient Iron Intake
Food is the primary source of iron, and consuming too little over time can cause iron deficiency. An iron-rich diet containing eggs, meat, leafy greens, and fortified iron is vital, especially for infants, growing children, and pregnant women.

Iron Malabsorption
Intestinal disorders or surgery can affect the body’s ability to absorb dietary iron. A person with celiac disease or who has had gastric bypass surgery may suffer from an iron deficiency, even if they’re consuming adequate amounts of dietary iron.

Blood Loss
Blood loss through injury or heavy menstruation can cause iron deficiency. Internal bleeding from an ulcer, hernia, or cancer can lead to anemia. Overuse of aspirin and other pain relievers can cause gastrointestinal bleeding, which may also cause iron deficiency.

Pregnancy
Pregnancy increases blood volume, and the iron stores of pregnant women may not be enough to produce enough hemoglobin for them and the growing fetus.

Some factors make people more susceptible to iron deficiency, including:

  • Poor nutrition
  • A vegetarian diet not replaced by iron-rich alternatives
  • Frequent blood donation
  • Pregnancy
  • Premature births
  • Growth spurts

Symptoms of Iron Deficiency Anemia

Individuals with iron deficiency anemia symptoms may not even know why they have such manifestations. The most common symptoms are:

  • Headaches
  • Fatigue or weakness
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Brittle, cracked, or spoon-shaped nails
  • Hair loss
  • Fainting
  • Bruising
  • Swollen and sore tongue
  • Pale skin
  • Pica (unhealthy cravings for non-edible materials like dirt, clay, ice, or starch)
  • Restless legs syndrome
  • Chest pain
  • Cold hands and feet

Untreated iron deficiency anemia can lead to complications including:

Heart Conditions
Iron deficiency means the heart needs to pump more blood to compensate for the insufficient oxygen carried in the blood. This situation overworks the heart and can cause complications like rapid, irregular heartbeat or an enlarged heart.

Pregnancy complications
Iron deficiency in pregnant women may lead to premature birth and low birth weight. Including iron supplements as part of prenatal care prevents this situation.

Growth Problems
Infants and adolescents who don’t get sufficient iron may experience delayed growth and development. Iron deficiency may also increase vulnerability to infections in growing children.

Treatment of Iron Deficiency Anemia

A doctor will first check whether a patient’s iron deficiency is caused by insufficient iron intake or an underlying condition. Blood tests for red blood cell size and color, hemoglobin, ferritin, and hematocrit determine the iron count. The doctor may order diagnostic tests like an endoscopy, a colonoscopy, or an ultrasound to identify an underlying cause of the condition.

Iron Supplements
Iron tablets replenish iron stores and restore body iron levels. Doctors will typically advise patients to take the supplements on an empty stomach to aid absorption.

Iron supplements darken the stool and may cause constipation. Patients should avoid medications like antacids, as they can retard the absorption of iron.

Dietary Iron
Food rich in iron also helps treat and prevent iron deficiency anemia. Examples include:

  • Green, leafy vegetables
  • Nuts
  • Beans
  • Eggs
  • Seafood such as oysters, clams, and shrimps
  • Dried fruits
  • Iron-fortified cereals
  • Vitamin C-containing fruits and foods that aid iron absorption

Treating the Underlying Cause of the Disease

Taking iron tablets may not do much if there’s an underlying cause of the condition. The healthcare provider may prescribe antibiotics to treat peptic ulcers and oral contraceptives to reduce excessive bleeding from menstruation. Some patients may need a surgical procedure to remove a tumor, fibroid, or a bleeding polyp.

In severe cases of iron deficiency anemia, a patient will receive iron intravenously or blood transfusions if they are losing iron quickly.

Preventing Iron Deficiency Anemia

An iron-rich diet is crucial to preventing iron deficiency anemia. Taking Vitamin C-containing foods (broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes, leafy greens, and red pepper) and fruits (oranges, mangoes, strawberries, pineapples, and grapefruits) also help prevent anemia. Nursing mothers should also ensure they feed their babies with breast milk or iron-fortified baby formula.

Living with Iron Deficiency

The effects of iron deficiency anemia on an individual can be far-reaching, and it’s essential to understand and learn how to manage them if they arise. Severe cases of iron deficiency may trigger mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder. Individuals experiencing these symptoms may want to add talk therapy or psychotherapy to their treatment plan.

Symptoms of iron deficiency like pica may have social or emotional implications for sufferers. Besides trying to increase blood iron levels, patients may want to seek support from relatives and friends to help them manage the social and emotional impacts of these symptoms. The support system can also help patients perform tasks in times where they experience severe fatigue.

Patients who experience symptoms like cold hands and feet should wear warm clothing with appropriate gloves, socks, and footwear to keep warm. They should also avoid nicotine and caffeine as they constrict blood vessels and can exacerbate cold.

Conclusion

Iron deficiency anemia is a common but treatable ailment. People who observe symptoms of the condition should speak with a doctor at once. With proper medical care and education, patients can know more about the deficiency and how to normalize their body iron levels as quickly as possible.

Author

Franz Gliederer, MD, MPH

Franz Gliederer (MD, MPH) is a specialist in Preventive Medicine with a Medical Doctorate from the University of Vienna, Austria and a

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