What Is Iron Deficiency Anemia?

Medically Reviewed by Carmelita Swiner, MD on July 07, 2023
4 min read

If you’re feeling tired and often unfocused, you could have anemia. Anemia is a common condition that happens when your body doesn’t have enough red blood cells. The most common type of anemia is iron deficiency anemia (IDA). 

Iron deficiency anemia can develop over time and may take months before you notice changes in your body. When you aren’t getting enough iron, your body uses its reserves first. Once your iron reserves decrease, your body stops producing enough red blood cells. 

When your body doesn’t have enough red blood cells you stop getting the right amount of oxygen in your blood. 

Iron deficiency anemia affects your body first, then it starts to affect your overall well-being. You may start to notice that you're fatigued or have a reduced ability to focus on your work. Until these changes start happening, you might not know you have anemia. 

Iron plays an important part in your body’s functions. It’s necessary to keep blood pumping oxygen throughout your body to all your major organs. 

Iron also helps keep your skin, hair, nails, and cells healthy. It produces hemoglobin that does a lot of the work to keep your body oxygenated and balanced.

You get iron from your food. It’s absorbed in your gastrointestinal tract, but only a small portion is absorbed. After absorption, the iron is put into your bloodstream where it is then transferred to and stored in your liver. 

The first signs that you have iron deficiency anemia are: 

  • Brittle nails 
  • Cracks on the sides of your mouth
  • Pale skin
  • Swelling or soreness of your tongue

Symptoms of iron deficiency anemia include:

  • Fatigue or feeling very tired
  • Chest pain
  • Restless legs syndrome
  • Shortness of breath
  • Weakness
  • Coldness in your hands and feet
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Pica, which is the craving to eat non-food items like chalk or dirt

Blood loss. The most common cause of iron deficiency anemia is blood loss. If you have a heavy period you may be more at risk for this type of anemia. You may also have slow internal blood loss. This can be caused by a peptic ulcer, hiatal hernia, colon polyp, or rectal cancer. 

Little to no iron in your diet. If you aren’t eating enough foods with iron in them, you can develop iron deficiency anemia. You should eat more iron-rich foods like meat, eggs, and leafy greens.

Your body can’t absorb iron.Celiac disease can prevent your body from absorbing the nutrients you need. If a part of your small intestine has been bypassed or removed, this can also keep your body from absorbing iron. 

Pregnancy. Iron deficiency anemia is common in pregnant women because their iron reserves are being used for them and their baby. You may need to take an iron supplement during your pregnancy. But you should always consult with your doctor before taking medications or supplements during pregnancy. 

Though this form of anemia is very common, women and people who have a diet low in iron are most at risk for iron deficiency anemia. However, you may be more at risk if you fit into any of the following categories: 

  • Women with heavy periods
  • Pregnant or breastfeeding women
  • People who have had major surgery or physical trauma
  • People with gastrointestinal diseases like celiac disease, or inflammatory bowel diseases like ulcerative colitis or Crohn disease
  • People with peptic ulcers
  • People who have had gastric bypass operations
  • People who don’t get enough iron in their diet 

First, you should consult with your doctor if you’re having any of the symptoms of iron deficiency anemia. Since bleeding is the most common cause, you should get help from your doctor to locate the source and stop the bleeding.

Once you’ve diagnosed your condition and started a treatment plan, you’ll need to maintain your iron reserves. 

Diet. By eating meat, poultry, fish, leafy greens, legumes, and iron-enriched pasta, grains, rice, and cereals, you can increase your iron reserves. This will help to treat and maintain the iron levels in your body. 

Iron supplements. You should only take iron supplements if recommended by your doctor. They’ll help you choose the right dosage for you. 

You should take the iron supplements on an empty stomach. But if you get nauseous when taking them, eat directly afterward. Don’t take iron supplements with antacids as they can affect how your body absorbs the iron. Taking iron supplements with vitamin C can help improve your body’s absorption.