Signs and Symptoms of Iron Deficiency Anemia

woman with iron deficiency anemia symptoms

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Iron is an essential mineral that your body needs to make red blood cells. It's estimated that up to 1.5 billion people worldwide have iron deficiency. Being iron deficient is the most common cause of anemia—a health condition that occurs when your body does not make enough red blood cells to send oxygen to your tissues.

In the early stages of iron deficiency, you might not have any symptoms. But over time, you may develop fatigue, weakness, shortness of breath, craving non-food items, and changes to your nail and hair health.

Common Symptoms

Your red blood cells help send oxygen to your body's tissues. In order to have enough red blood cells for your body to function properly, you need to have enough iron in your body. When you are iron deficient, you typically have a low red blood cell count, which makes it difficult for your blood to deliver adequate oxygen to the rest of your body. As a result, you can experience symptoms such as:

It's important to note that some iron deficiency anemia symptoms can mimic symptoms of other serious conditions. Notably, chest pain, shortness of breath, and heart palpitations could be a sign of an underlying heart problem. If you begin to have these symptoms suddenly, it's best to seek medical care immediately and receive a proper diagnosis.

Rare Symptoms

While less common, iron deficiency anemia can also affect the skin, hair, and nervous and immune systems. Symptoms may include:

  • Pica: Having a craving for non-food items, such as ice, clay, chalk, and paper
  • Glossitis: Tongue inflammation that occurs with soreness and swelling
  • Koilonychia: Brittle and spoon-shaped nails
  • Restless legs syndrome: Not being able to rest your legs and having a need to move your legs or walk, especially at night
  • Skin and hair changes: Lack of oxygen can cause your hair to become weak or brittle and make your skin feel dry
  • Depressive mood: Being iron deficient can affect your mood and cause feelings of depression

Symptoms in Children

Infants and children tend to have more subtle symptoms of iron deficiency. If left untreated, iron deficiency anemia can lead to developmental delays. Here are some signs to watch for in children:

  • Irritability
  • Pale skin
  • Poor feeding
  • Rapid breathing
  • Wanting to eat non-food items

Symptoms During Pregnancy

There is a lot of overlap between symptoms of pregnancy and iron deficiency anemia. In some cases, it can be hard to tell if fatigue, shortness of breath, a racing heart, or strange cravings are due to normal pregnancy symptoms or iron deficiency anemia. The growing fetus requires iron, which can deplete how much iron the expecting parent stores in their body. Additionally, pregnancy can limit how much iron you get in your diet due to nausea or food aversions while you're expecting.

The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology recommends getting routine complete blood count (CBC) tests to screen for anemia early in pregnancy. Repeat blood counts can be done if there is any concern for anemia later in pregnancy.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

Symptoms of iron deficiency anemia can occur gradually—making it easy to ignore them at first. However, if you notice a significant shift in energy or are experiencing symptoms of iron deficiency anemia, it's important to visit your healthcare provider for proper testing. Your provider can order lab tests to help determine the underlying cause of your symptoms.

However, if you experience any of the following symptoms suddenly, seek prompt medical attention:

  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Heart palpitations
  • Dizziness

A Quick Review

Iron is an essential mineral that your body needs. Not having enough iron in your body limits how many red blood cells you are able to produce, which inhibits your blood's ability to pass oxygen to your body's tissues.

Iron deficiency anemia can cause symptoms such as fatigue, weakness, shortness of breath, and pale skin, among others. These symptoms can interfere with your daily functioning and lower your quality of life. That said, it's a good idea to talk to your healthcare provider if you notice symptoms and get tested for anemia. Getting an early diagnosis can help get you started on treatment sooner and reduce symptoms.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What causes iron levels to drop?

    Your iron levels can drop for several reasons. You might have iron deficiency anemia if you lose blood due to heavy menstrual periods, don't eat enough iron in your diet, or aren't able to absorb iron properly due to an underlying condition such as inflammatory bowel disease and celiac disease.

  • Can anemia cause eye floaters?

    Anemia can lead to dizziness, which may produce vision changes such as a sudden darkening of vision when you stand. Eye floaters, on the other hand, are typically due to eye inflammation, trauma, or bleeding in the eye.

  • What does anemia fatigue feel like?

    Fatigue is a broad term and it's a symptom with many underlying causes. Fatigue due to anemia can feel like general tiredness, low energy, weakness of the body, and difficulty performing exercise. It's often accompanied by other symptoms like shortness of breath.

  • How quickly can iron levels be restored?

    How fast you're able to restore your iron levels will depend on the underlying cause of your symptoms. Medication and other treatments can help boost your iron count, and slowly over time, your body can create new blood cells to improve your body's overall functioning. However, in order for this process to occur, it's paramount to follow your treatment plan.

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