Iron deficiency is when there is not enough iron in the blood.
It can lead to symptoms such as fatigue and dizziness, among many others.
Iron is a mineral that is vital for many bodily functions. It supports the transportation of oxygen in the blood.
It is also essential for the correct development and functioning of cells, and the production of some hormones and tissues.
If a person’s iron levels fall too low, it can disrupt these functions and may lead to iron-deficiency anemia.
In most cases, this condition is easily treatable.
The symptoms of an iron deficiency vary, depending on its severity, as well as a person’s overall health.
For a mild or moderate iron deficiency, a person may not experience any noticeable symptoms.
Sometimes, a lack of iron can lead to iron-deficiency anemia.
This is when the body does not have enough red blood cells or hemoglobin in the blood.
Iron-deficiency anemia can cause symptoms that include:
- sensitivity to temperature
- cold hands and feet
- shortness of breath
- chest pain
- difficulty concentrating
- heart palpitations
- restless leg syndrome
- cravings for nonfood items, such as ice or dirt
There are also several physical signs of an iron deficiency to look out for, such as:
- brittle nails
- cracks at the sides of the mouth
- hair loss
- inflammation of the tongue
- abnormally pale or yellow skin
- irregular heartbeat or breathing
Iron deficiencies occur when an insufficient amount of iron is present in the blood.
There are several potential causes for a lack of iron, including the following:
Iron is in many different types of foods, including fish, fortified cereals, beans, meat, and leafy green vegetables.
The National Institutes of Health recommend that male adults get 8 milligrams (mg) of iron per day and female adults get 18 mg per day before 50 years of age and 8 mg after that age.
Some medical conditions and medications may prevent the body from absorbing iron properly, even when a person is eating plenty of iron-rich foods.
Conditions that can cause problems with iron absorption include:
- intestinal and digestive conditions, such as inflammatory bowel disease
- gastrointestinal surgery, such as gastric bypass surgery
- rare genetic mutations
Hemoglobin is a protein in red blood cells. It contains most of the body’s iron.
For this reason, blood loss can result in iron deficiencies and anemia.
Blood loss can be a result of injury, or too frequent blood tests or donations. But it can also occur with certain conditions or medications, including:
- internal bleeding from ulcers or colon cancer
- regular use of aspirin or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
- heavy menstrual periods
- urinary tract bleeding
- rare genetic conditions
Other conditions that may cause iron deficiency include:
- kidney failure
- congestive heart failure
Iron is particularly important during periods of growth.
For this reason, children and pregnant women have a higher risk of developing iron deficiency and anemia than others.
A doctor may initially perform a physical examination when diagnosing iron deficiency.
They will also ask about a person’s symptoms and any risk factors, such as heavy menstrual bleeding or an underlying medical condition.
If a doctor suspects an iron deficiency, they will usually order a blood test.
The results of these tests can provide information such as the total amount of red blood cells and iron content in the blood.
If the doctor suspects internal bleeding, further tests may be necessary. These could include:
- a fecal blood test
- an endoscopy
- a colonoscopy
The exact treatment for an iron deficiency will depend on the cause and severity of the condition.
In most cases, a doctor will prescribe iron pills.
These are medicinal supplements that have more iron than over-the-counter multivitamin supplements.
In cases where iron malabsorption is an issue, it is possible to deliver iron intravenously.
This is also an option in other cases, such as in cases of significant blood loss.
In the most severe cases, a blood transfusion may be necessary.
If internal bleeding is a cause of the deficiency, it may require surgery.
A doctor may also suggest dietary changes to include more iron-rich foods.
Anyone experiencing symptoms of an iron deficiency should speak to a doctor.
When to see a doctor
The doctor can provide a simple blood test to get quick answers.
If a person’s iron levels are normal, there may be another problem causing their symptoms.
It is best to work with a doctor to get a definitive diagnosis.
Restoring iron levels to normal can occur within 1 or 2 months of treatment.
A doctor may recommend taking iron pills for longer to help create an iron “store.”
In severe cases, however, more intensive treatments may be necessary.
An iron deficiency can cause many symptoms, including dizziness, fatigue, and cold hands and feet.
A doctor can usually diagnose an iron deficiency using a simple blood test.
Treatment may involve taking prescription iron supplements for several months.
In cases where an underlying medical condition causes the deficiency, a person may require more extensive treatment.
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