Iron deficiency anaemia
Iron deficiency anaemia is caused by lack of iron, often because of blood loss or pregnancy. It’s treated with iron tablets prescribed by a GP and by eating iron-rich foods.
Check if you have iron deficiency anaemia
Symptoms can include:
tiredness and lack of energy
shortness of breath
noticeable heartbeats (heart palpitations)
A simple blood test will confirm if you’re anaemic.
Your GP will ask you about your lifestyle and medical history.
If the reason for the anaemia is not clear (like pregnancy), your GP might order some tests to find out what might be causing the symptoms.
They might also refer you to a specialist for further checks.
Iron deficiency anaemia is the most common type of anaemia. There are other types, like vitamin B12 and folate anaemia, that the blood test will also check for.
Treatment for iron deficiency anaemia
Once the reason you have anaemia has been found (for example, an ulcer or heavy periods) your GP will recommend treatment.
If your blood test shows your red blood cell count is low (deficient), you’ll be prescribed iron tablets to replace the iron that’s missing from your body.
The prescribed tablets are stronger than the supplements you can buy in pharmacies and supermarkets.
You’ll have to take them for about 6 months. Drinking orange juice after you have taken them may help your body absorb the iron.
Try taking the tablets with or soon after food to reduce the chance of side effects.
Your GP may carry out repeat blood tests over the next few months to check that your iron levels are back to normal.
Things you can do yourself
If your diet is partly causing your iron deficiency anaemia, your GP will tell you what foods are rich in iron so you can eat more of them.
Eat and drink more:
dark-green leafy vegetables like watercress and curly kale
cereals and bread with extra iron in them (fortified)
pulses (beans, peas and lentils)
Eat and drink less:
milk and dairy
foods with high levels of phytic acid, such as wholegrain cereals, which can stop your body absorbing iron from other foods and pills
Large amounts of these foods and drinks make it harder for your body to absorb iron.
You might be referred to a specialist dietitian if you’re finding it hard to include iron in your diet.
Causes of iron deficiency anaemia
Heavy periods and pregnancy are very common causes of iron deficiency anaemia. Heavy periods can be treated with medication.
Iron deficiency anaemia can be a sign of bleeding in the stomach and intestines caused by:
Taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen and aspirin
swelling of the large intestine (colitis) or food pipe (oesophagus)
cancers of the bowel or stomach – but this is less common
Any other conditions or actions that cause blood loss could lead to iron deficiency anaemia.
Untreated iron deficiency anaemia:
can make you more at risk of illness and infection – a lack of iron affects the immune system
may increase your risk of developing complications that affect the heart or lungs – such as an abnormally fast heartbeat (tachycardia) or heart failure
in pregnancy, can cause a greater risk of complications before and after birth