Iron deficiency anaemia: Causes, symptoms and treatment

February 5, 2021
7 minute read

Anaemia is a condition that affects roughly 25% of the world’s population, with most cases being attributed to iron deficiency.

Aptly called Iron Deficiency Anaemia, the condition manifests common symptoms such as fatigue, a lowered sense of well-being, and even impaired cognition.

If you’re wondering whether you might suffer from iron deficiency anaemia, look no further! In this blog, we provide a comprehensive overview of iron deficiency anaemia, tackling common causes, symptoms, treatment options and what you can do at home.

What is Iron Deficiency Amenia?

Amenia occurs when your body lacks enough red blood cells to be able to supply enough oxygen to its various tissues. In the developed world, a high proportion of anaemia cases are directly caused by iron deficiency, which as the name suggests, represents a lack of iron in the body.  

Your body maintains a constant balance between its stores of iron, the amount of iron you take in through your diet, and the amount of iron that’s lost. When the disturbance of this balance leads to a deficiency of iron, your body will struggle to fully produce red blood cells, leading to iron deficiency anaemia.  

Causes of Iron Deficiency Amenia

Iron deficiency anaemia can be caused by multiple factors, including:

  • Inadequate dietary intake of iron  
  • Chronic blood loss (primary of gastrointestinal origin)
  • Pregnancy  
  • Heavy periods  

Generally, if a patient presents with iron deficiency anaemia of unknown cause, they are initially referred to a gastroenterologist, as the condition is often caused by blood loss in the gastrointestinal system.

Untreated iron deficiency anaemia can have severe negative consequences on your health. For example, since a lack of iron affects your immune system, untreated iron deficiency anaemia can increase the chances of infection or illness. Furthermore, untreated iron deficiency anaemia can also increase the risk of cardiovascular complications (such as a rapid heart rate) or even lung complications.  

In pregnant women, untreated iron deficiency anaemia can lead to a greater risk of pregnancy complications both before and after birth (premature birth, low birth weight, postpartum depression).

Symptoms of iron deficiency anaemia

It’s important to be aware that symptoms of iron deficiency anaemia may vary from person to person and may also vary depending on the degree of iron deficiency.  

Common symptoms include:

  • Fatigue, weakness, and a general lack of energy  
  • Heart palpitations or chest pain  
  • Shortness of breath  
  • Pale skin  

Less common symptoms can include headaches, tinnitus, hair loss, restless leg syndrome, itchy skin, difficulty swallowing, inflamed or sore tongue, food tasting strange, spoon-shaped nails and even a desire to eat things that are not food (such as paper), brittle nails.  

Treatment of Iron Deficiency Amenia

To check whether you have iron deficiency anaemia, your GP will order a full blood test. If an iron deficiency is found, an investigation into its cause will also likely be carried out, as the underlying cause could require immediate management (e.g. chronic blood loss) or may continue to cause the patient to lose iron if not addressed.  

There are two primary options for treating iron deficiency anaemia:

  • Oral iron therapy (taking iron supplements)  
  • Intravenous iron therapy

Oral iron supplementation represents a good strategy for treatment, being a cheap, easy and convenient option. However, since the rate at which iron is absorbed intestinally is limited, oral iron treatment is often limited to patients with mild anaemia, or women that are not pregnant.  

Some patients may experience gastrointestinal side effects, which can impact their adherence or even make them not tolerate taking iron supplements at all. Such side effects include:

  • Constipation or diarrhoea  
  • Felling sick  
  • Gastrointestinal pain  
  • Heartburn

The best way to reduce the chance or intensity of gastrointestinal side effects is to take your iron tablets alongside a meal.  

The second option of treatment is intravenous iron therapy. This is an even more effective treatment option; however, it is generally only considered when oral iron supplementation is not effective or inappropriate. Administering iron intravenously leads to a faster repletion of the body’s iron stores, however this method comes with a considerable disadvantage: it must be administered by a healthcare professional, and as such, it is less convenient and more expensive.  

What you can do yourself

If it turns out that your diet is the cause of your iron deficiency anaemia, then incorporating more iron-rich foods and reducing the amount of foods that interfere with the absorption of iron is a good strategy.  

You can try eating more dark-green leafy vegetables (e.g. kale, spinach), cereals and bread fortified with iron, meat (red meat, pork, poultry), beans and pulses, while reducing your intake of tea and coffee and milk and dairy.  

Do you have more questions about Anaemia? Get in touch with our team to speak to a knowledgeable pharmacist that will be able to answer any further questions.

Content last reviewed on:
August 15, 2023
Next review date:
August 15, 2025
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