Anemia occurs when the levels of hemoglobin in the red blood cells are insufficient. Hemoglobin is a protein in the red blood cells that gives them the red color and enables them to carry oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body.
Iron deficiency anemia is one of the most common types of anemia and it occurs due to lack of enough iron in the body. The body needs iron in order to produce hemoglobin. When the body lacks sufficient iron, the tissues and organs do not get the required amount of oxygen to be healthy. This can result in the individual being tired and short of breath.
Causes of Iron Deficiency Anemia
There are several reasons why a person may be suffering from iron deficiency anemia and these include:
- Insufficient iron intake: The body gets iron from the foods we consume. Eating too little iron for an extended period will cause shortage of iron in the body. Foods rich in iron include eggs, meat, green leafy vegetables, and iron fortified foods.
- Inability to absorb iron: Certain disorders such as celiac disease and intestinal surgery such as gastric bypass can limit the absorption of iron in the body.
- Blood loss: Since blood contains iron in the red blood cells, when an individual bleeds they lose iron. Some of the conditions that increase the risk of iron deficiency anemia include heavy menstruation, gastrointestinal bleeding caused by regular use of over the counter (OTC) pain medication, and slow chronic blood loss due to colorectal cancer, peptic ulcer, or hiatal hernia.
- Endometriosis: This can cause unseen heavy blood loss because it tends to be hidden in the pelvic or abdominal area.
- Pregnancy: Pregnant women are at risk of iron deficiency anemia if they do not supplement their iron intake. This is because most their iron is being channeled to the growing fetus.
Symptoms of Iron Deficiency Anemia
Although iron deficiency anemia is the most common type of anemia, many individuals suffer from this condition without even knowing it as the symptoms can be mild at first making it hard to notice the symptoms. Most people get to know they have anemia when they do a blood test.
The symptoms of iron deficiency anemia include:
- Shortness of breath
- Pale skin
- Tingling sensation in the legs
- Tongue soreness or swelling
- Fast or irregular heartbeat
- Cold hands and feet
- Strange cravings such as to eat clay, dirt, or ice
- Brittle nails
Risk Factors of Iron Deficiency Anemia
Some of the individuals who are at a greater risk of iron deficiency anemia include:
- Individuals with poor diet
- Women who are at a childbearing age
- Pregnant women
- Individuals who donate blood on a regular basis
- Infants and children especially those who are born prematurely or with low birth weight, those who do not get enough iron from formula or breast milk, and those experiencing a growth spurt
- Vegetarians who fail to replace meat with other iron-rich foods
Diagnosis of Iron Deficiency Anemia
Diagnosing iron deficiency anemia involves your physician carrying out several tests such as Complete Blood Count (CBC) to determine the following:
- Color and size of the red blood cells: Iron deficiency anemia causes the red blood cells’ color to be pale and size smaller than normal
- Amount of white blood cells and platelets
- Hemoglobin level: Low levels of hemoglobin indicate anemia. Normal hemoglobin levels for women is 11.6 to 15 grams (g) of hemoglobin per deciliter (dL) of blood for women and 13.2 to 16.6 g/Dl for men
- Hematocrit: Blood volume percentage made up by the red blood cells
- Ferritin: This is the protein that stores iron in the body and low levels of it are an indication of low levels of iron
Other tests include:
- Fecal occult test: To look for internal bleed by checking for presence of blood in the feces
- Endoscopy: This is used to view the gastrointestinal tract lining to check for bleeding from an ulcer, hiatal hernia, or the stomach
- Colonoscopy: To rule out internal bleeding in the lower part of the large intestine or colon
- Pelvic ultrasound: This this looks for the cause of excess menstrual bleeding such as uterine fibroids
Treatment of Iron Deficiency Anemia
Treatment for iron deficiency anemia includes:
- Iron supplements: Iron tablets help to restore iron in the body and should be taken on an empty stomach as this ensures that they are absorbed better. They however need to be taken for several months and may cause constipation or black stool.
- Diet: An iron-rich diet can help prevent or treat iron deficiency. This type of diet includes foods rich in dark green leafy vegetables, red meat, nuts, dried fruits, and iron fortified cereals. Additionally, you can accompany these meals with vitamin C as it helps in iron absorption.
- Treating the underlying causes: Sometimes the iron supplements can fail to treat iron deficiency anemia especially if it is caused by an iron absorption problem or bleeding. In such cases the treatment may involve antibiotics to treat the ulcer, oral contraceptives to make the menstruation light, and surgery to remove a bleeding tumor, polyp, or fibroid.
In cases where the condition is severe, blood transfusion is usually performed to replenish the hemoglobin and iron quickly.
At King’s College Hospital Dubai, we focus on offering an exemplary service. From initial consultation through to final diagnosis, treatment and beyond. Our multidisciplinary team of expert doctors and nurses, and technologists led by Dr Hassan Ghazal – an American triple board-certified Consultant Medical Oncologist and a Consultant Clinical Hematologist with more than 3 decades of clinical experience, are here to offer tailored management and treatment of your condition, and to answer any questions that you may have throughout your time with us. Whatever you need us for, we’re only a phone-call away.
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