Iron-deficiency anemia: causes, symptoms, diagnosis, prevention and treatment

Iron-deficiency anemia is considered to be the most common form of anemia that refers to a blood disorder affecting the red blood cells. It occurs when the body has inadequate iron levels to make hemoglobin, a substance in the red blood cells that functions primarily to carry oxygen throughout the body.

When you have iron-deficiency anemia, you may primarily experience shortness of breath or tiredness. This deficiency is diagnosed by physicians and usually prescribed iron supplements to boost iron content in the body [1].

Causes of iron-deficiency anemia

A person can develop iron-deficiency anemia due to several reasons, such as the following:

Regular poor diet – most of the nutrients can be obtained from the foods you eat, and if you are not eating iron-rich foods, you are at risk of developing iron-deficiency anemia. Take note, though, that only 1 mg of iron can be absorbed for every 10 to 20 mg of iron ingested.

Body changes – when your body goes through some changes, it needs more iron and red blood cells. Some changes going through the body can be adolescence, pregnancy and lactation. 

For instance, having a growing fetus requires a lot of iron, so the body should be prepared for this, or else the pregnant woman may be at a high risk of developing iron-deficiency anemia. 

Gastrointestinal tract abnormalities – any gastrointestinal (GI) abnormalities may disrupt iron absorption, making it impossible to maintain iron levels regardless of the food eaten. 

The iron absorption problem must be with the small intestine, like celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, or some parts of the small intestine that were removed. Some medications or surgery can also affect how the body absorbs iron. 

Blood loss – loss of blood can lower the iron levels in the body, which may result in iron-deficiency anemia. Some instances that cause blood loss are GI bleeding, menstrual bleeding, or injury [2]. 

Featured product offer
Vitalitown Iron Complex
  • Contains iron, vitamin B6, methyl folate, vitamin B12 plus natural vitamin C, all in one daily vegan capsule.
  • Highly absorbable iron and bioactive B vitamins.
  • 100% Vegan, non-GMO, and free from common allergens.

Signs and symptoms 

Iron-deficiency anemia develops gradually if a long-term problem causes it. However, the severity of the symptoms may largely depend on how quickly anemia develops, but generally, they are quite noticeable. The common symptoms are the following:

Tiredness and lack of energy – unusual tiredness is the most common symptom of iron-deficiency anemia. Fatigue may be experienced due to a lack of iron in the body that is needed to make a protein called hemoglobin. 

Iron-deficiency anemia: causes, symptoms, diagnosis, prevention and treatment

Having inadequate hemoglobin can lower the oxygen that reaches the tissues and muscles, causing them to be deprived of energy. Moreover, your heart needs to double work to move more oxygen-rich blood cycle in your body, making you feel tired [3]. 

Shortness of breath – along with tiredness, you may also experience shortness of breath when you have iron-deficiency anemia. Low levels of hemoglobin can also cause low oxygen levels, meaning your muscles may not receive enough oxygen to do normal activities, including a simple walk [4]. 

Consequently, your breathing rate may increase as your body tries to acquire more oxygen, resulting in shortness of breath. 

Noticeable heartbeats or heart palpitations – noticeable heartbeats are also another symptom of iron-deficiency anemia. With a low oxygen supply, iron deficiency, anemia and heart problems can also occur [5]. 

Pale complexion – the skin and lower eyelids are usually paler than usual for people with iron-deficiency anemia. It happens because the hemoglobin in red blood cells makes the blood its red color; hence, lower levels caused by iron-deficiency anemia may turn the blood less red. The skin usually loses its color or warmth due to low levels of hemoglobin. 

Research also discovered that the symptoms of iron-deficiency anemia for children aged six to eleven may appear all over the body or be limited to one area, such as in the face, gums, insides of lips or lower eyelids and nails [6]. 

Headache – frequent headaches are another common symptom of people with iron-deficiency anemia, especially women in their menstruation period. However, the link between iron deficiency and headaches remains unclear. 

A sore or abnormally smooth tongue – your mouth may also be affected when you have iron-deficiency anemia. Some mouth issues you may experience are a burning feeling in the mouth, dryness, mouth ulcers, red cracks and soreness [7].  

Hair loss and damaged skin – having dry or damaged hair and skin is also a sign of iron-deficiency anemia. A lowered level of hemoglobin in the blood can cause a decrease in oxygen levels available to cells, especially those responsible for hair growth [8].

When your cells are deprived of cells, your skin and hair become dry and weak. Worse, you may also experience hair loss

Diagnosis of iron-deficiency anemia 

Only physicians can diagnose iron-deficiency anemia, so it is important to seek consultations if you notice some significant symptoms. The doctor will conduct an exam and ask several questions about your general health. It may include checking your skin tone, fingernails and lower eyelids to mark some physical signs of iron-deficiency anemia.

Although there are physical symptoms to watch for, not all symptoms of iron-deficiency anemia are visible; hence, a blood test may also be conducted. Your doctor may look for the following:

  • the percentage of red blood cells (hemoglobin) or hematocrit in the total volume of blood
  • size and color of the red blood cells, checking primarily for smaller pale cells
  • low ferritin levels, in which a lack of this protein is a sign of poor iron storage in the blood
  • lower hemoglobin levels that are linked with iron deficiency

Aside from the physical exam and blood tests, your doctor may ask further questions or run more tests to help determine if the iron-deficiency anemia is caused by an undiagnosed underlying condition.

Featured product offer
Elm & Rye Iron
  • Contains ferrous fumarate, a well-absorbed form of iron effective in preventing iron deficiency.
  • Recommended dosage of 1 tablet per serving.
  • For improved blood health, concentration, and energy.

Prevention of iron-deficiency anemia 

There are effective ways to prevent iron-deficiency anemia; perhaps the first one is identifying the recommended daily amounts based on your age, sex and medical conditions, including whether you are pregnant or lactating. 

Generally, you need about 8.7 mg of iron every day for men over 18 years old and women over 50 years old, while 14.8 mg a day for women aged between 19 to 50 [9]. 

Moreover, having a healthy and iron-rich diet is another key to preventing iron-deficiency anemia. You must incorporate some plant-based products or meats that provide high contents of iron, such as:

  • dark leafy greens particularly spinach
  • shellfish and salmon
  • dried fruits
  • eggs
  • legumes
  • lean red meat
  • dark chocolate
  • broccoli
  • tofu
  • whole grains, peas and seeds
  • iron-fortified bread and cereals
Prevention of iron-deficiency anemia

Vitamin C aids the body in absorbing iron better, so eating foods rich in this nutrient can increase your iron levels. Some great sources of vitamin C are oranges, strawberries and tomatoes. 

Taking iron supplements can also boost your iron levels, specifically ferrous sulfate, which refers to a type of dietary supplement that helps prevent or treat iron-deficiency anemia. 

Treatment of iron-deficiency anemia 

Several treatments are found to be helpful in treating iron-deficiency anemia. First off, taking iron supplements, also known as iron pills or oral iron, can prevent and treat the lack of iron in the body.

Iron supplements are actually the most common treatment for anemia, and supplementation can take from three to six months in order to restore your iron levels

Generally speaking, your doctor may prescribe that you take iron supplements if you are pregnant. It happens for your body to keep up with the production of red blood cells as you grow a fetus. 

However, talking to your doctor is still a must. You must be aware of the side effects of the oral pill, including bad metallic taste, constipation, upset stomach, vomiting and diarrhea.

Intravenous or IV iron is another fastest option to have your iron content at its stable level. It is directly inserting iron into your body through one of your veins. This procedure helps increase iron levels in your blood and often takes only one or a few sessions to restore your iron levels. 

For people who have the long-term condition of iron-deficiency anemia, IV iron is quite popular and most used. Some major side effects of the procedure can be vomiting or headaches right after the treatment, but, luckily, these normally go away after a day or two.

For more treatment options, you may also want to consider taking medicines, particularly the erythropoiesis-stimulating agent (ESA) [10]. The medicines can help your bone marrow produce more red blood cells if it is what causes your iron-deficiency anemia. 

Iron treatment via medicinal pills is usually used with iron therapy for patients who have both iron-deficiency anemia and another chronic or long-term medical condition like kidney disease.


Although iron-deficiency anemia is rarely a long-term complication, it is better to consult with your doctor, as the symptoms related to anemia may be similar to a much more severe underlying condition. Some people with the condition often can live with it, of course, with a regular iron-rich diet, treatment and healthy lifestyle choices

You must take note though some health researchers found that having too much iron in the body can put your health at a high risk and may reduce a few years of your life. Sounds terrifying, right? 

Well, the conclusion was derived after the scientists used large-scale genetic data in order to assess the impacts across a population of having naturally raised levels of iron based on the years of life expectancy [11]. 

The key to a healthy body and longevity is indeed always having balance. 

Featured product offer
Alkaline Herb Shop Iron Supplement 200 Capsules
  • 200 vegetable capsules in each bag made from wildcrafted and organic herbs.
  • Includes burdock root, nettle, blessed thistle, quassia, guaco, and dandelion root.
  • Promotes joint health, digestive health, healthy hair, skin, and nails.


Photograph: Lazy_Bear/Envato
The information included in this article is for informational purposes only. The purpose of this webpage is to promote broad consumer understanding and knowledge of various health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment and before undertaking a new health care regimen, and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.