What Is Iron-Deficiency Anemia?

    Iron-deficiency anemia is anemia that happens when there isn't enough iron in the body.

    Someone with anemia has a lower number of red blood cells (RBCs) than usual. RBCs contain hemoglobin, a protein that carries oxygen throughout the body. The body needs iron to make hemoglobin (HEE-muh-glow-bin). Without enough iron, less hemoglobin and fewer red blood cells are made, leading to anemia.

    Treatment with iron supplements usually makes the anemia better.

    What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Iron-Deficiency Anemia?

    At first, children with iron-deficiency anemia may not have any symptoms. When symptoms do happen, a child might:

    • look pale
    • seem moody
    • be very tired
    • get tired quickly from exercise
    • feel dizzy or lightheaded
    • have a fast heartbeat
    • have developmental delays and behavioral problems
    • want to eat ice or non-food items (called pica)

    What Causes Iron-Deficiency Anemia?

    Iron-deficiency anemia can happen when:

    • There's a problem with how the body absorbs iron (such as in celiac disease).
    • Someone has blood loss from an injury, heavy menstrual periods, or bleeding inside the intestines.
    • Someone doesn't get enough iron in the diet. This can happen in:
      • children who drink too much cow's milk, and babies given cow's milk before they're 1 year old
      • vegetarians because they don't eat meat, a source of iron
      • breastfed babies who don't get iron supplements
      • babies given formula with low iron
      • babies who were born early or small who may need more iron than formula or breast milk contains

    How Is Iron-Deficiency Anemia Diagnosed?

    Doctors usually can diagnose iron-deficiency anemia by:

    • asking questions about symptoms
    • asking about the diet
    • finding out about the patient's medical history
    • doing a physical exam
    • doing blood tests to:
      • look at the red blood cells with a microscope
      • check the amount of hemoglobin and iron in the blood
      • check how fast new RBCs are being made
      • do other blood tests to rule out other types of anemia

    How Is Iron-Deficiency Anemia Treated?

    Doctors treat iron-deficiency anemia with iron supplements taken as a liquid or pill for at least 3 months. To help iron get absorbed into the body:

    • Avoid taking iron with antacids, milk, or tea because these interfere with the body's ability to absorb iron.
    • Take iron before eating (unless this causes an upset stomach).

    Someone whose anemia is very severe may get iron or a blood transfusion through an IV (intravenous) line.

    When iron-deficiency anemia is caused by something other than a lack of iron in the diet, treatment also may include:

    • treatments to reduce bleeding in heavy menstrual periods
    • reducing the amount of cow's milk in the diet
    • treating an underlying disease

    How Can Parents Help?

    If your child has iron-deficiency anemia:

    • Make sure your child takes the iron supplements exactly as prescribed.
    • Include iron-rich foods in the family's diet. Good sources of iron include:
      • iron-fortified cereals
      • lean meat, poultry, and fish
      • tofu
      • egg yolks
      • beans
      • raisins
    • Serve fruits and vegetables high in vitamin C or a glass of orange juice at mealtimes. This helps the iron get absorbed.
    • Talk to a dietitian or your doctor if your child is a vegetarian. They can recommend foods to help your child get enough iron.

    To help prevent iron-deficiency anemia in young children:

    • Don't give cow's milk to babies under 1 year old.
    • Limit cow's milk in kids over 1 year old to less than 2 cups of milk a day. Giving them more can make them feel full and lower the amount of iron-rich foods they eat.
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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