Iron-deficiency anemia is a disorder in which the body synthesis of red blood cells (RBCs) is limited due to a lack of iron.
Red blood cells (RBCs), also called erythrocytes, carry oxygen (energy) to the different cells of the body, and eliminate the excess of carbon dioxide (waste product).
To carry out this function, red blood cells use a protein called hemoglobin. Iron is one of the chemical elements that make up hemoglobin; therefore, iron is an essential mineral used by RBCs (Red Blood Cells) to correctly carry oxygen to the cells and take back carbon dioxide.
The state in which there is a hemoglobin deficit is called anemia. There are different causes for a lack of hemoglobin in the body, resulting in different types of anemia (hemolytic anemia, sideroblastic anemia, etc.).
Iron-deficiency anemia is one of them and occurs due to the lack of iron that prevents hemoglobin from being adequately synthesized. Iron-deficiency anemia is the most common type of anemia.
As previously mentioned, the main cause of iron-deficiency anemia is the lack of iron stores in the body that consequently result in red blood cell synthesis impairment.
The lack of iron can be due to two main factors:
The loss of blood, even when it goes unnoticed, is without any doubt the most influential factor in iron-deficiency anemia, and can be caused by multiple reasons (menstruation, blood in stool, hemorrhages, etc.).
Red blood cells have a life span of 120 days approximately and then they are broken down. The iron that they contained is then excreted through the urine after biotransformation. Overall, it is estimated that there is a daily elimination of iron of about 1 to 2 mg that must be compensated through diet.
Iron-deficiency anemia is a disorder that mainly affects women since the normal loss of iron through the urine is combined with the loss of iron during the menstruation. For that reason, it is important to have stores of iron in the body to compensate this loss.
It is estimated that between 2 and 5% of women of childbearing age have iron-deficiency anemia.
The most common causes that may lead to iron-deficiency anemia are:
Moderate anemia may cause symptoms such as:
If the lack of iron progresses even more, and suppose a serious depletion of oxygen transportation to the cells, the next symptoms may be seen:
A severe iron-deficiency anemia not properly treated may lead to heart failure.
The best way to detect this type of anemia, apart from the related symptoms, is by a blood test.
In case of anemia, hemoglobin levels are always below normal rate: below 13 g/dl in men, below 12 g/dl in women, and below 11 g/dl in children between 6 months and 6 years of age.
In addition to low hemoglobin levels, the blood test might also show:
According to these results, iron-deficiency anemia can also be classified as microcytic and hypochromic anemia.
Additionally, since there are low iron stores in the body, ferritin will also be decreased below 10 ng/ml (sometimes with levels close to 0).
If there are high levels of eosinophils (eosinophilia), it can suggest that the cause of the anemia is parasitic.
Iron-deficiency anemia is treated with iron supplements such as ferrous sulfate orally at doses of 400 to 600 mg daily. This treatment can increase hemoglobin levels by 1-2% after 6 days.
Other supplements that can be used are:
In severe cases, when there is a continuous loss of blood or absorption impairment from the gastrointestinal tract, iron can be given intravenously (iron dextran).
To avoid iron-deficiency anemia, an adequate intake of iron in the diet is necessary. Top iron-rich foods include:
In breastfeeding children, breast milk does not contain enough iron for the child. For that reason, sometimes is necessary to use iron supplements.