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Anaemia, iron deficiency - Introduction

NHS Choices Medical Reference

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Anaemia is a condition where the amount of haemoglobin in the blood is below the normal level, or there are fewer red blood cells than normal.

There are several different types of anaemia and each one has a different cause, although iron deficiencyanaemia is the most common type.

Other forms of anaemia can be caused by a lack of vitamin B12 or folate in the body. Read more about vitamin B12 and folate deficiency anaemia.

Symptoms of iron deficiency anaemia

The main symptoms of iron deficiency anaemia are tiredness and lethargy (lack of energy). Other symptoms include:

  • shortness of breath (dyspnoea)
  • changes in your appearance, such as a pale complexion and dry nails

Speak to your GP if you notice any of these symptoms. They will be able to diagnose iron deficiency anaemia with a simple blood test.

However, in most cases there won't be any symptoms at all, particularly if the cause is a slow loss of blood.

What causes iron deficiency anaemia?

Iron deficiency anaemia occurs when there isn't enough iron in the body. Iron is found in meat, dried fruit and some vegetables. Iron is used by the body to make haemoglobin, which helps store and carry oxygen in red blood cells.

This means if there is a lack of iron in the blood, organs and tissues will not get as much oxygen as they usually do.

There are many conditions that can lead to a lack of iron. In men, and post-menopausal women the most common cause is bleeding in the stomach and intestines. This can be caused by:

In women of reproductive age, the most common causes of iron deficiency anaemia are:

Read more about the causes of iron deficiency anaemia.

Treating iron deficiency anaemia

Treatment for iron deficiency anaemia involves taking iron supplements to boost the low levels of iron in the body. This is usually effective and the condition rarely causes complications.

You will need to be monitored every few months to check the treatment is working and your iron levels have returned to normal.

The underlying cause will also need to be treated so anaemia does not come back.

Read more about how iron deficiency is treated.

Iron-rich foods

Foods that contain iron include:

  • dark-green leafy vegetables, such as watercress and curly kale
  • beans
  • nuts
  • meat
  • dried fruit

Some foods and medicines can make it harder for your body to absorb iron. These may include:

  • tea and coffee
  • calcium, found in dairy products such as milk
  • antacids (medication to help relieve indigestion

Complications

If iron deficiency anaemia is left untreated it can make you more susceptible to illness and infection, as a lack of iron in the body affects your immune system (the body's natural defence system).

Severe iron deficiency anaemia may increase the risk of developing complications that affect the heart or lungs such as:

  • tachycardia (an abnormally fast heartbeat)
  • heart failure, when your heart is not pumping blood around your body very efficiently

Pregnant women also have a higher risk of complications before and after birth.

Read more about the complications of iron deficiency anaemia.

Medical Review: May 01, 2012
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