Iron deficiency anemia affects roughly 5 million people in the United States each year. Despite how incredibly common this condition is, though, many people don’t quite know what it is or how to treat it.
What are the complications of anemia?
Complications of anemia range from mild to severe and include the following:
- Heart issues
- Pregnancy complications
- Developmental delays in children
What is iron deficiency anemia?
Anemia is a condition where the body does not have enough healthy red blood cells to perform functions like transport oxygen across the body. Iron deficiency anemia is a specific type of anemia caused by an iron deficiency.
How does a lack of iron lead to anemia?
If there is not enough iron present in the body, the body cannot make hemoglobin, which carries oxygen to the cells. Without this oxygen, a whole host of symptoms can occur, including the following…
1. Extreme Fatigue
While most people feel tired off and on during the day, the fatigue associated with iron deficiency anemia is more pronounced and debilitating.
What does this fatigue feel like?
People with iron deficiency anemia often feel the urge to nap during the day or may fall asleep while at work or school. Iron deficiency anemia can also cause “brain fog” in which the sufferer is easily forgetful or makes frequent mistakes on the job.
This loss of mental concentration can be so severe that doctors will recommend that people with iron deficiency anemia stay away from heavy machinery and avoid driving when possible.
Why does iron deficiency anemia cause fatigue?
With anemia, there isn’t enough oxygen being sent to the body’s tissues and muscles. As a result, the body weakens and the heart has to work harder to keep your systems operating normally. Both of these situations can induce lethargy and fatigue.
Closely related to this increased cardiac output is the following worrying sign of anemia…
2. Shortness of Breath
Oxygen is vital to the efficient operation of the muscles. So, when the body is not getting enough oxygen, it will be more difficult for you to breathe easily.
How does this symptom present itself?
Low levels of oxygen in the body make it harder for you to carry on normal daily activities like walking, carrying heavy loads or simple tasks without frequently trying to catch your breath.
Why does anemia cause shortness of breath?
Simply put, the body is starved of the oxygen it needs to function. As a result, the body will increase breathing as it desperately tries to get the oxygen it needs.
Shortness of breath is one of the more severe signs of iron deficiency anemia and often accompanies other symptoms, like the following…
3. Heart Irregularities
Most people go throughout the day without ever noticing their heartbeat. Feeling a fluttering feeling in the chest or a rapid heartbeat can therefore be incredibly alarming.
For those with iron deficiency anemia, it’s a clear sign that something is seriously wrong. After all, this symptom isn’t all that common with anemia, which means its presence signals a severe case of anemia.
Why does anemia cause heart problems?
With anemia, the heart works overtime to deliver oxygen to the rest of the body. Over a period of months and years, this overworking weakens the structure of the heart. This weakening can lead to:
- Heart palpitations
- Heart murmurs
- Heart disease
- Death (in extreme cases)
Is anyone at increased risk of this symptom?
People who take blood thinners for heart disease may find that their medications are to blame for their anemia. The solution? Doctors often prescribe other medications to counteract the effects of aspirin and blood thinners in patients with heart disease.
The following sign of iron deficiency anemia isn’t as severe as heart problems, although it can still cause some issues with self-esteem…
4. Dry Skin and Hair
Dry, brittle hair and moisture-starved skin are often signs that the body is suffering a nutrient deficiency. People with iron deficiency anemia will therefore often notice skin drying and cracking, especially the skin on the heels of the feet.
Be on the lookout for thinning hair and brittle nails.
Other related symptoms of iron deficiency anemia are thinning hair, balding, and brittle nails.
How severe does anemia have to be before these symptoms emerge?
These symptoms can be seen in even the mildest cases of iron deficiency anemia.
Why does iron deficiency anemia cause dry skin and hair?
The Short Answer
All parts of the body require oxygen to be health—skin, hair, and nails included. So, when oxygen levels are low due to anemia, the body rations what oxygen it gets for important functions. Keeping hair, skin, and nails healthy is low on this priority list.
The Long Answer
When the body is deprived of oxygen-rich red blood cells, it uses the cells that are available to meet the body’s most basic needs. The oxygenated blood in the body is sent to the heart and major organs first, leaving the skin, nails, and hair starved of moisture and nutrients. As a result, they appear dry and brittle.
While hair, skin, and nail dryness may occur in mild cases, balding typically only happens with advanced stages of iron deficiency anemia.
The following symptom of iron deficiency anemia also worsens with more severe cases…
5. Restless Legs
Restless legs syndrome (RLS) and iron deficiency anemia are closely linked, meaning that RLS is a common symptom of anemia.
What does RLS feel like?
People with RLS may find it hard to lie still and experience an overwhelming urge to shake their legs or generally move their legs while in a resting position. They often describe a tingling or itchy feeling in the legs, similarly to how limbs feel when they “fall asleep.”
When does this symptom typically occur?
RLS usually affects people at night, making restful sleep difficult.
What worsens symptoms?
The lower the iron and oxygen levels in the body, the worse the symptoms.
Why does iron deficiency anemia cause RLS?
As with other symptoms of anemia, this symptom emerges because the body is trying to compensate for a lack of oxygen and iron by sending the iron throughout the body where it’s needed most. This rationing means that the majority of the iron-rich blood is traveling to the heart, depriving the limbs of the blood flow that they need.
Because of the lack of efficient blood flow to the legs, the sufferer can experience itchiness and tingling, which makes sleeping or sitting still difficult.
This rationing of iron and inefficient blood flow can also lead to the following sensation…
6. Always Feeling Cold
If you have ever met someone who always seems cold, it’s possible that they may have been suffering from iron-deficiency anemia.
Where will someone feel these chills?
This chill is especially noticeable in the extremities and limbs, and feet are often the first place the symptoms are noticed.
Who is most likely to develop this symptom?
This symptom is often seen in those who are premenopausal (aka, still experiencing their menstrual cycle). Furthermore, heavier-than-normal bleeding, as seen in conditions like polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), are often accompanied by iron deficiency anemia.
Why do people with iron deficiency anemia feel cold?
The Short Answer
Without enough oxygen-rich red blood cells to warm the body, sufferers are often cold or get chilled easily.
The Long Answer
The body needs an effective flow of blood to experience warmth. When the body has to direct the blood flow to other parts of the body, it is difficult for the body to generate consistent warmth. This inconsistency can cause frequent chills in patients with iron deficiency anemia.
Of course, someone with anemia might not experience chills just for this reason alone…
7. Craving Ice
Craving and chewing ice, a condition medically referred to as pagophagia, is common in people with iron deficiency anemia.
How severe are the cravings?
The cravings for ice are proportionate to the severity of the anemia.
In extreme cases, some people will be so addicted to ice that they seek it out daily, buying bags to chew at home and altering their daily schedule in order to obtain ice. People with iron deficiency anemia also tend to crave other non-nutritive substances like clay, paper, dirt or corn starch.
Don’t ignore this symptom.
If you start to experience any of these cravings, it is suggested that you see a doctor to find out if you may be lacking dietary iron.
Why do some people with this type of anemia chew ice?
While the link between ice-chewing and anemia is not quite clear, some medical professionals suggest that chewing ice sends a rush of oxygen to the brain. This sensation may then become addicting.
Specifically, other experts believe that the sensation of chewing and the coolness of the ice send positive sensations to the brain, much like a high that people get from smoking or caffeine.
While chewing ice alone may not cause much damage, the same cannot be said of the following classic symptom of iron deficiency anemia…
8. Frequent Infections
People deficiency in iron often suffer from more opportunistic infections, which can have an ill-effect on their overall health. In other words, they tend to be more susceptible to colds and the flu and may even develop frequent rashes and skin infections.
Why do anemic people get infected more easily?
An iron deficiency results in weakness and an overworked heart. In turn, the body slows down the immune function and re-directs its energy into sending blood to the heart and other organs where it’s needed most.
A weakened immune system, which means infections are more likely.
How is this symptom managed?
In most cases of infection due to iron deficiency anemia, doctors work to treat the underlying infections themselves before treating the anemia. Since treatment for infections may also treat the anemia, so each treatment is evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
The following symptom of iron deficiency anemia? It’s one most people may not see coming…
9. Dry Mouth and Swollen Tongue
People with iron deficiency anemia often find themselves suffering from a swollen and dry tongue, making swallowing and eating difficult. The tongue can also become pale or unusually smooth.
How severe is the anemia when this symptom emerges?
Coupled with difficulty breathing, a swollen tongue is a surefire sign that there is a severe iron deficiency in the body.
Why does this type of anemia lead to these symptoms?
Iron is needed to make myoglobin, a protein found in muscles that carries and stores oxygen. So, when someone suffers from iron deficiency anemia, someone naturally has reduced levels of myoglobin.
Once again, this lowering means the body has to ration oxygen, which means the mouth can be deprived of the oxygen it needs to function and stay moisturized. As a result of becoming dry, the tongue may subsequently become inflamed and swell.
While these symptoms may come as a surprise, the following are classic signs that many associate with iron deficiency anemia…
10. Dizziness and Headaches
Feeling lightheaded and dizzy frequently can be a sign that the body is not getting the oxygen it needs to survive.
What are the complications of this symptom?
This lightheadedness can also be accompanied by severe headaches and blurred vision in people with iron deficiency anemia. In some cases, people may suffer from fainting spells when iron levels drop drastically low.
Why does iron deficiency anemia result in dizziness and headaches?
With anemia, the body is preserving the limited oxygen in your red blood cells for the most essential functions like breathing. So, that means there is less oxygen sent to the brain, leading to lightheadedness.
When oxygen deprivation is severe enough, the iron-deficient body will experience headaches that range from mild to severe, as well as an overall feeling of dizziness.
Of course, these symptoms aren’t the only ways that iron deficiency anemia can affect the brain and mental health…
11. Anxiety and Panic Attacks
Most people are unaware that a lack of oxygen and iron in the body can cause anxiety. Unfortunately, that means people with iron deficiency anemia are at an increased risk of developing anxiety and having panic attacks.
Why does anemia cause anxiety and panic attacks?
The Short Answer
When anemia causes the heart to overwork, it can cause the brain to react by becoming anxious and nervous.
The Long Answer
These symptoms are due to the lack of oxygen flowing to the brain cells. As a result, iron deficiency anemia can cause the heart to beat rapidly and breathing to be labored and short. It’s all in an attempt to take in more oxygen and circulate it throughout the body. Unfortunately, these process can lead to panic attacks and anxiety in many people.
The most surprising symptom of them all?
So, just what symptom of iron deficiency anemia takes the most people by surprise?…
12. Paleness in the Eyelids
One of the stranger symptoms of iron deficiency anemia? Pale eyelids.
How can someone spot this symptom?
Pulling down the lower eyelid shows skin that is bright red in color—in healthy individuals. If this area is white or pinkish, it could indicate anemia or just a general lack of iron in the body.
In fact, this symptom is so indicate of iron deficiency anemia that it’s one of the first places doctors check for physical symptoms when making a diagnosis.
How severe is anemia when this symptom emerges?
Paleness in the eyelids is a symptom of an advanced stage of iron deprivation, and doctor usually treat the anemia more aggressively when paleness in the face or body occurs.
Why do anemics have pale eyelids?
As with most symptoms of anemia, this paleness is associated with decreased blood flow. Namely, because there is a lack of iron-rich blood flowing through the eyelids, they appear lighter in color.
What’s most important for those who think they may have iron deficiency anemia to know?…
Who is at Risk for Developing Iron Deficiency Anemia?
There are some people who are higher risk than others for developing iron deficiency anemia than others. In other words, while anyone at any age can develop this condition, certain risk factors make someone more likely to become anemic.
What are the risk factors for iron deficiency anemia?
Those risk factors include:
Those who have a diet high in fat, simple carbohydrates and calories, yet lacking in essential nutrients can put people at high risk for anemia.
Increasing the amount of protein, folate, and vitamin B12 in the body is one of the best ways to counteract these effects and treat the anemia.
Certain disorders of the intestine can deplete red blood cells, making someone more likely to develop iron deficiency anemia. Some specific disorders that put people at greater risk include:
- Celiac disease
- Crohn’s disease
People who are menstruating often suffer from a temporary drop in iron levels during their cycles. These levels typically restore themselves naturally after menstruation is over.
Iron deficiency anemia during pregnancy is incredibly common as pregnancy can mean a drop in hemoglobin levels.
People who suffer from chronic illnesses can easily develop iron deficiency anemia. Some of these conditions include:
- Kidney failure
- Certain cancers
Infants younger than two and elderly people older than 65 are at greater risk of developing iron deficiency anemia.
Other risk factors include:
- Alcohol use
While more often than not, doctors treat this condition with over-the-counter medication. There are times, though, when more aggressive measures are necessary to treat this type of anemia. Considering how devastating the consequences of untreated anemia can be, seeking treatment right away is always the best course of action.