Iron deficiency anaemia: Symptoms, causes, treatments & diagnosis
What is anaemia?
Anaemia is a condition that develops when your blood does not contain enough healthy red blood cells. These cells are the main transporters of oxygen to the organs in your body. Symptoms of anaemia - like fatigue - occur because your organs aren't getting enough oxygen.
Anaemia is the most common blood condition in the UK. Women and people with chronic diseases are at increased risk of anaemia. Important factors to remember are:
- Certain forms of anaemia are hereditary and infants may be affected from the time of birth.
- Women in the childbearing years are particularly susceptible to a form of anaemia called iron-deficiency anaemia, because of the blood loss from menstruation and the increased blood supply demands during pregnancy.
- The elderly may also have a greater risk of developing anaemia because of poor diet and other medical conditions.
There are many types of anaemia. All are very different in their causes and treatments. Iron-deficiency anaemia, the most common type, is easily treated with dietary changes and iron supplements. However, some types of anaemia may present lifelong health problems.
What causes anaemia?
There are more than 400 types of anaemia, which are divided into three groupings:
- Anaemia caused by blood loss
- Anaemia caused by decreased or faulty red blood cell production
- Anaemia caused by excessive destruction of red blood cells
Anaemia caused by blood loss
Red blood cells can be lost through bleeding, which can occur slowly over a long period of time, and can often go undetected. This kind of chronic bleeding commonly results from the following:
- gastrointestinal conditions such as ulcers, haemorrhoids (piles), gastritis (inflammation of the stomach) and cancer of the bowel.
- use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) such as aspirin, diclofenac or ibuprofen
- menstruation and childbirth in women, especially if menstrual bleeding is excessive and if there are multiple pregnancies
Anaemia caused by decreased or faulty red blood cell production
The body may produce too few blood cells or the blood cells may not work properly. In either case, anaemia can result. Red blood cells may be faulty or decreased due to abnormal red blood cells or a lack of minerals and vitamins needed for red blood cells to work properly. Conditions associated with these causes of anaemia include the following:
- Sickle cell anaemia
- Iron deficiency anaemia
- Vitamin deficiency
- Bone marrow and stem cell problems
- Other health conditions
Iron deficiency anaemia occurs because of a lack of the mineral iron in the body. Bone marrow, found in the centre of the long bones in the body, needs iron to make haemoglobin, the part of the red blood cell that transports oxygen to the body's organs. Without adequate iron, the body cannot produce enough haemoglobin for red blood cells. The result is iron deficiency anaemia. Iron deficiency anaemia can be caused by the following:
- An iron-poor diet, especially in infants, children, teens and vegetarians
- The metabolic demands of pregnancy and breastfeeding that deplete a woman's iron stores
- Frequent blood donation
- Endurance training
- Conditions affecting the bowel, such as Crohn's disease or surgical removal of part of the stomach or small intestine
- Certain drugs, foods, and caffeinated drinks