Iron deficiency anemia

Basic Information


A decreased number of circulating blood cells or insufficient hemoglobin in the cells. Anemia is a result of other disorders. For proper treatment, the cause must be found.

Signs and symptoms of Iron-deficiency anemia

Structure of Hemoglobin Initially there may be no symptoms.

Signs of pronounced anemia include:

  • Tiredness and weakness.
  • Paleness, especially in the hands and lining of the lower eyelids.

Less common signs include:

  • Tongue inflammation.
  • Fainting.
  • Breathlessness.
  • Rapid heartbeat.
  • Appetite loss.
  • Abdominal discomfort.
  • Cravings for ice, paint or dirt.
  • Susceptibility to infection.


Decreased absorption of iron or increased need for iron. Causes in adolescents and adults:

  • Rapid growth spurts.
  • Heavy menstrual bleeding.
  • Pregnancy.
  • Malabsorption.
  • Gastrointestinal disease with bleeding, including cancer.

Risk increases with

  • Poor nutrition.
  • Age over 60.
  • Recent illness, such as an ulcer, diverticulitis, colitis, hemorrhoids or gastrointestinal tumors.

Preventive measures

  • Maintain an adequate iron intake through a well-balanced diet or iron supplements.
  • Correction of gynecologic or other problems causing excess blood loss.

Expected outcomes

Usually curable with iron supplements if the underlying cause can be identified and cured.

Possible complications

  • Failure to diagnose a bleeding malignancy.
  • Angina pectoris (pain or pressure beneath the breastbone caused by inadequate blood supply to the heart) or congestive heart failure (pumping action of the heart is insufficient) may develop as a result of marked iron deficiency.

Iron deficiency anemia treatment

General measures

  • The most important part of treatment for iron-deficiency anemia is to correct the underlying cause. Iron deficiency can be treated well with iron supplements.
  • Avoid risk of infections.


Iron supplements:

  • Take iron on an empty stomach (at least 1/2 hour before meals) for best absorption. If it upsets your stomach, you may take it with a small amount of food (except milk).
  • If you take other medications, wait at least 2 hours after taking iron before taking them. Antacids and tetracyclines especially interfere with iron absorption.
  • Iron supplements may cause black bowel movements, diarrhea or constipation.
  • Continue iron supplements until 2 to 3 months after blood tests return to normal.
  • Too much iron is dangerous. A bottle of iron tablets can poison a child. Keep iron supplements out of the reach of children.


No restrictions. You may need to pace activities until symptoms of fatigue are gone.


  • Adults should limit milk to 1 pint a day. It interferes with iron absorption.
  • Eat iron-containing foods, including meat, beans and leafy green vegetables.
  • Increase dietary fiber to prevent constipation.

Notify your physician if

  • You or a family member has symptoms of anemia.
  • Nausea, vomiting, fever, stomach pain, severe diarrhea or constipation occur during treatment.

Last updated 14 June 2015


© All rights reserved. Registration is not required to view the information on the site.