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Iron deficiency anemia

To be anemic means that there aren't enough red blood cells flowing throughout your body. Red blood cells carry oxygen throughout your body, so if you're anemic, everything from your brain, to your heart, to your muscles aren't getting enough oxygen to run properly.

Iron is a key part of red blood cells. When your body doesn't have enough iron, it'll make fewer red blood cells or make cells that are just too small. If you lose enough iron, you'll wind up with iron deficiency anemia - the most common form of anemia.

So, what causes iron deficiency anemia?

There are basically three main ways you can become iron deficient. First, bleeding can cause you to lose more blood cells and iron than your body can replace. Bleeding due to ulcers, cancers, taking aspirin or other medicines can cause anemia. In women, this can happen because of heavy or frequent menstrual periods. The second way, your body isn't properly absorbing iron, perhaps, due to an intestinal disease. Some surgeries, like gastric bypass, can lead to anemia. You can also develop anemia if you take too many antacids that contain calcium. Lastly and much less common, is because of inadequate iron in your diet. We see this in strict vegetarians and older folks who simply just don't eat enough food.

In many cases, mild iron deficiency anemia comes on so gradually that you may not even know you're anemic. Symptoms of mild anemia are subtle and include: feeling grumpy, weak or tired more often than usual and getting headaches or perhaps having problems concentrating

But as the anemia gets worse, you may develop: a blue color to the whites of your eyes, light-headedness when you go to stand up and you may look pale or experience shortness of breath

To find out if you've got iron-deficiency anemia

See your doctor; your doctor will start with a Complete Blood Count or CBC test. That'll tell you and your doctor your white, red blood cell and platelet counts. If you're anemic and have small red blood cells, that suggests iron deficiency anemia, so iron studies like serum iron, total iron binding capacity and ferritin level tests should be done.

So, what steps can you take -- It's important that your diet include enough iron. Red meat, chicken, turkey. liver, and egg yolks are important sources of iron. Flour, bread, and some cereals are fortified with iron.

Sometimes people with anemia take iron supplements to build up iron stores in their bodies. But the thing is - It's not enough just to take extra iron at your doctor's direction...Your doctor needs to find out WHY you've got iron deficiency anemia and treat that underlying cause.

Review Date: 2/18/2016
Reviewed By: Laura J. Martin, MD, MPH, ABIM Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Hospice and Palliative Medicine, Atlanta, GA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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