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A complete low down on anemia caused by iron deficiency

Anemia refers to decreased number of circulating red blood cells. It is the most common blood disorder in the general population and affects an estimated two billion people, globally.


Iron deficiency is the most common cause of anemia, which is caused due to the lack of sufficient iron to form normal red blood cells. Iron is essential for the formation of hemoglobin, the main component of red blood cells for carrying oxygen from lungs to all the tissues in the body.

Where does iron come from?

Iron comes from the diet. Sources of food containing high levels of iron include red meat and liver. Smaller amounts are found in fortified breakfast cereals, beans, green leafy vegetables and eggs.

What are the symptoms of iron deficiency anemia?

Iron deficiency commonly causes tiredness, fatigue and pale skin. If severe, it can also cause breathlessness on exertion, hair loss, tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and occasionally strange cravings for non-food substances such as chalk and dirt (pica), especially in children.

What are the causes of iron deficiency?

In developing countries, low iron in the diet is the primary cause of iron deficiency anemia. In men and post-menopausal women, the most common cause is bleeding in the stomach and intestines. This can be caused by a stomach ulcer, stomach cancer, bowel cancer, or by taking painkillers. In women of reproductive age, excessive bleeding during periods and pregnancy are seen.

How is iron deficiency diagnosed?

The World Health Organisation defines anemia as blood hemoglobin values of less than 13 g/dl in men and 12g/dl for women. The diagnosis also includes a complete blood cell count, peripheral smear, reticulocyte count, and serum iron indices (serum ferritin and serum iron).

How is iron deficiency treated?

The treatment for iron deficiency anemia is oral iron supplementation. Oral supplementation is cheap, safe, and effective. The common side effects of oral treatment include gastritis, diarrhoea and constipation. Iron replacement is given through the vein if oral treatment is not tolerated due to side effects.

Further problems…

If iron deficiency anemia is left untreated, it can make us more susceptible to illness and infection, as lack of iron affects the body’s natural defence system (the immune system). Severe iron deficiency anemia may increase the risk of developing complications that affect the heart or lungs. Pregnant women with severe or untreated anemia also have a higher risk of complications before and after birth.