Humans need iron to make hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that enables them to transport oxygen through the blood vessels. If you don’t have sufficient hemoglobin, your muscles and tissues won’t get enough oxygen to function effectively. That leads to a condition known as anemia.

How Many People Are Iron Deficient?

Iron deficiency anemia is the most common nutritional deficiency, affecting 30 percent of the world’s population. While it can affect anyone, it tends to affect women more than men. Women of reproductive age or who are pregnant have a much greater risk. 

According to data from the World Health Organization (WHO), nearly 30 percent of women aged 15 and 49 and almost 40 percent of children aged 6 to 59 months had anemia in 2019. 

Some studies also suggest that adults who don’t eat meat — female and male — have a higher prevalence of depleted iron stores and iron deficiency.

What Causes Iron Deficiency?

An insufficient intake of dietary iron can lead to iron deficiency and iron deficiency anemia. Blood loss caused by menstruation, gastrointestinal bleeding (peptic ulcers, polyps, etc.), surgery, injuries, and frequent blood donation can also result in iron deficiency. 

Other common causes of iron deficiency include:

  • Pregnancy. Pregnant people need more iron to meet their needs as well as the needs of their developing babies.
  • Intestinal disorders. Conditions such as celiac disease can affect a person’s ability to absorb iron and other nutrients.
  • Certain medications. Some research suggests that acid-suppressing medications may decrease iron absorption.
  • Chronic kidney disease. Patients with CKD often have low levels of erythropoietin (EPO), a hormone that tells the body to make red blood cells. Lower levels of EPO can lead to lower levels of red blood cells and anemia.

Why Is Iron Important?

Along with being necessary for the production of hemoglobin, iron is an essential component of myoglobin, a protein responsible for supplying oxygen to the muscles. It’s also vital for muscle metabolism, physical growth, brain development, and the production of some hormones.

What Are the Symptoms of Iron Deficiency?

One of the first and most common symptoms in many patients with iron deficiency is tiredness. The body’s tissues and muscles aren’t getting enough oxygen, depriving them of energy, which can leave a patient feeling fatigued. 

Additional symptoms of iron deficiency include:

  • Physical weakness 
  • Shortness of breath
  • Pale skin
  • Feeling cold, particularly in the hands and feet
  • Memory/thinking problems
  • Heart palpitations
  • Headaches
  • Brittle nails and hair
  • Inflammation and soreness of the tongue (glossitis)

Untreated iron deficiency can eventually lead to severe complications, including more frequent infections due to a weakened immune system, tachycardia, and heart failure. Pregnant women with iron deficiency may also experience issues such as premature birth, low birth weight, and an increased risk of postpartum depression. 

How Is Iron Deficiency Diagnosed and Treated?

Diagnosing iron deficiency typically requires blood tests. A complete blood count (CBC) can help determine the number, size, and color of a patient’s red blood cells. Blood tests can also check the patient’s hemoglobin and hematocrit levels, ferritin levels, serum iron levels, and iron-binding capacity. Additional testing, such as an endoscopy or ultrasound, may be necessary to determine the cause of the patient’s iron deficiency. 

There are a few treatment options for iron deficiency, including:

  • Dietary changes to include more iron-rich foods
  • Oral iron supplements
  • IV iron 
  • Medical or surgical interventions to treat the underlying problem
  • Blood transfusions

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