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Iron deficiency (anemia)

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 3 minutes read
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Iron is important for many functions in the body, with a very important one being to help produce healthy red blood cells so that they can transport oxygen around your body. Iron levels can be tested by having a blood test that measures the blood's iron stores (ferritin). Iron deficiency means lower than the recommended normal range of iron stores in your body. We get our iron from foods rich in iron, such as red meat, green leafy vegetables, nuts, dried fruits or cereals, and flour fortified with iron.

The most common cause of low iron is bleeding, but can also be caused by low iron intake in your diet or poor absorption of iron into the body through the intestine (more common with conditions such as celiac disease). Women of childbearing age can be particularly prone to low iron, especially if they have heavy periods or during pregnancy.

If you have very low or low iron levels for a prolonged time, you may develop a condition called iron-deficiency anemia. This is where the low iron levels affect the production of red blood cells so that less oxygen can be transported around your body.

Some symptoms of iron deficiency can be tiredness, loss of motivation, poor concentration, pale complexion, palpitations, and hair and nails becoming more brittle.

Healthwords pharmacists' top tips

You can help increase your iron levels by eating food rich in iron and avoiding consuming too much coffee, tea, and dairy, as these can lessen the absorption of iron into the body.

If you are taking iron supplements, the best way to ensure you are getting the most benefit is to avoid eating food or drinking tea or milk-containing drinks an hour before and an hour afterward. Certain medications, such as antibiotics and antacid medication, can interfere with iron absorption, too, so speak to your doctor or pharmacist if you have any questions.

It has been found that vitamin C can help with the absorption of iron, so you could try taking your iron tablet with some orange juice.

Iron tablets can make your poop black in color, which is normal, and can also cause some people to get an upset tummy or constipation. Speak to your doctor if this is affecting you and becoming bothersome.

When should I see my doctor?

If you have any symptoms of low iron, you should see your doctor first for an assessment because the symptoms are quite general and may not be related to iron deficiency. You should also see your doctor if your poop looks black (unless you take iron tablets) or your periods are particularly heavy. We advise not to self-diagnose iron deficiency and take an iron supplement, as too much of a good thing can also be harmful.

What will the doctor do?

The doctor will ask about your current symptoms and medical history and take a blood test to assess your iron levels. If the test shows low iron levels, the doctor may prescribe iron tablets. You will likely need to take them for a number of months, and your doctor may arrange further blood tests.

Fitnote

You are likely to still be fit for work if you have iron deficiency; however, your doctor can discuss this with you as it may depend on the severity of your symptoms and the type of work you do.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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