Iron is a crucial nutrient for the body and plays a significant role in the production of red blood cells, which carry oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. When your body doesn't have enough iron, you can develop a condition called iron deficiency.

Causes of Iron Deficiency

Iron deficiency's most common causes include inadequate dietary intake, poor absorption of iron due to gastrointestinal diseases, and significant blood loss stemming from heavy menstrual periods or chronic conditions.

If you're not getting enough iron in your diet, it may lead to a lack of iron in your body. This is often due to a poor diet lacking in iron-rich foods.

Alternatively, even with an appropriate diet, certain gastrointestinal diseases can impair the absorption of iron, leaving your body deficient.

Chronic blood loss - whether through heavy menstrual cycles or other conditions that cause ongoing bleeding like inflammatory bowel disease – can also deplete your body's iron stores. It's crucial to investigate these potential causes if dietary adjustments aren't resolving the issue.

Symptoms of Iron Deficiency

The symptoms of iron deficiency can vary depending on the severity of the deficiency, how quickly it develops, and your age and current state of health. Here are some common symptoms of iron deficiency:

Common signs and symptoms of iron deficiency in adults

Feeling a constant sense of fatigue and battling shortness of breath could be more than just the result of a busy schedule; it's possible that you're experiencing some common signs and symptoms of iron deficiency. These symptoms develop gradually over time, starting off mildly but potentially worsening if left untreated.

  1. Fatigue and Weakness: When the body doesn't have enough haemoglobin, less energy is available, leading to persistent fatigue and weakness.
  2. Pale skin and brittle nails: Haemoglobin gives skin its rosy colour, so when the level drops, skin can turn pale or look yellowish, particularly noticeable in the face, inner eyelids, gums, and nail beds. Brittle or spoon-shaped nails (koilonychia) may also be a sign of iron deficiency.
  3. Shortness of Breath: This can occur because, without sufficient haemoglobin, the body is not able to deliver enough oxygen to its tissues and cells, making simple activities such as walking or climbing stairs more challenging.
  4. Headaches and dizziness: Iron deficiency may contribute to frequent headaches and feelings of light-headedness or dizziness.
  5. Rapid or Irregular Heartbeat: In severe cases of iron deficiency, the heart may be forced to work harder to transport oxygen, leading it to beat faster or irregularly.
  6. Dry and Damaged Hair and Skin: Iron deficiency can lead to poor circulation, meaning less oxygen gets delivered to the skin and hair follicles, possibly contributing to damage or hair loss.
  7. Frequent Infections: Iron is needed for a healthy immune system, so a deficiency can lead to more infections.
  8. Restless Legs Syndrome: Some people with iron deficiency may have a strange urge to move their legs while trying to sleep.
  9. Palpitations and rapid heartbeat: Insufficient iron levels can affect the heart's ability to pump oxygen-rich blood efficiently, resulting in palpitations (awareness of the heartbeat) and a rapid or irregular heartbeat.
  10. Poor concentration and cognitive function: Iron is essential for proper brain function, and a deficiency can lead to difficulties with concentration, memory, and cognitive performance. Brain fog, decreased alertness, and reduced productivity may be experienced.
  11. Cold intolerance: People with iron deficiency may feel cold more easily and have a lower tolerance for cold temperatures.

If you're experiencing these symptoms and suspect you might have an iron deficiency, make sure to consult with your healthcare provider. If you have one or more of these symptoms it doesn’t necessarily mean you have an iron deficiency. So talk to your doctor.

Symptoms in infants, children and teenagers

Are your little ones displaying unusual signs such as having a decreased appetite or seeming less energetic than usual? These could be symptoms of iron deficiency, especially noticeable in infants, children, and teenagers. Iron deficiency can present itself through various symptoms:

  1. Learning Difficulties: Iron deficient youngsters may struggle with focus and learning.
  2. Stunted Growth: A lack of dietary iron can hinder physical growth and development.
  3. Decreased Appetite: They might lose interest in food, even those which are iron rich.
  4. Reduced Fitness Levels: Chronic tiredness and weakness may result from low iron levels. So keep an eye out for these symptoms in your young ones! Ensuring adequate iron intake is crucial for their health and well-being.
  5. Pale Skin: Haemoglobin gives skin its rosy colour, so low levels can cause the skin to become lighter.
  6. Rapid Heartbeat: Low levels of iron can also cause the heart to beat more rapidly as it tries to deliver more oxygen-rich blood to the body.
  7. Headache or Light-Headedness: Insufficient oxygen may also lead to headaches or dizziness.
  8. Inflamed or Sore Tongue: Iron deficiency can lead to a painful, swollen, or oddly smooth tongue.
  9. Brittle Nails: Without enough iron, the nails can become thin and brittle.
  10. Pica: Pica refers to a craving to eat substances that are not food, like ice, dirt, or starch. This is a common symptom of iron deficiency among children.
  11. Frequent Infections: Iron plays a key role in a healthy immune system, so frequent infections could be a sign of an iron deficiency in children.

If you suspect your child or teenager might have an iron deficiency, it's essential to consult with a healthcare provider. Iron deficiency in children can be usually treated with an iron-rich diet or iron supplements if the child's doctor recommends it.

Signs and symptoms during pregnancy

Experiencing unexplained fatigue or weakness during your pregnancy journey? These could be signs of iron deficiency anaemia, a common occurrence in expecting mothers. You might also notice a paleness to your skin, gums and nail beds.

An inflamed or sore tongue is another symptom to watch out for.

Your body's ability to fight off infections could diminish as well.

Taking these symptoms lightly isn't wise. Severe iron deficiency during pregnancy can lead to complications such as premature birth or low birth weight. Therefore, it's crucial that you pay attention to your diet and take prescribed iron supplements if necessary.

Ensure that you're getting enough dietary intake of iron-rich food sources like leafy greens and meat. Stay strong, stay healthy - for you and your baby!

Risk Factors for Iron Deficiency

After understanding the symptoms of iron deficiency, it's essential to delve deeper into the risk factors that may lead to this condition. You could be at risk due to poor dietary intake of iron-rich foods, blood loss from heavy menstrual periods or other medical conditions, and inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn's disease or coeliac disease. Grasping these risks is crucial for preventive measures and early diagnosis.

Poor dietary intake of iron-rich foods

If you're not vigilant about incorporating iron-rich foods into your daily meals, you run the risk of poor dietary intake which can lead to iron deficiency.

This condition is more likely to affect children, teenagers, menstruating females, vegetarians, and pregnant or breastfeeding individuals who have increased requirements for this essential mineral.

There are several ways to ensure adequate intake of iron:

1. Make meat and eggs a consistent part of your diet as they are a good source of iron.

2. Incorporate green leafy vegetables, beans, nuts and dried fruit into your food plan.

3. Include whole grains fortified breakfast cereals in your daily meals.

4. Consider soybean flour as an excellent alternative especially if you're vegetarian. Preventing poor absorption means putting conscious effort into what we eat every day!

Blood loss from heavy menstrual periods or other medical conditions

Heavy menstrual periods or certain medical conditions can result in substantial blood loss, potentially leading to decreased levels of essential minerals in your body. This significant decrease often affects your iron levels, contributing to iron-deficiency anaemia.

It's essential to know that chronic diseases such as cancer or gastrointestinal disorders can cause persistent bleeding, further exacerbating this deficiency. When you lose blood, you also lose the iron contained within red blood cells which is vital for your overall health and wellness.

If not addressed promptly, it may lead to a low blood count and other serious health complications. Therefore, understanding these links between heavy menstrual periods, various medical conditions and iron deficiency is crucial for liberating yourself from potential adverse effects on your health.

Inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn's disease or coeliac disease

Living with conditions like Crohn's disease or coeliac disease can be incredibly challenging, as these inflammatory bowel diseases not only cause discomfort and pain, but may also rob your body of vital nutrients due to blood loss.

The continuous inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract can lead to bleeding, resulting in a greater need for iron.

Consequently, iron deficiency becomes a common issue, often progressing into anaemia if unchecked. Symptoms such as fatigue, paleness and shortness of breath may indicate that you're dealing with iron deficiency anaemia.

Diagnostic tests will measure ferritin levels in your blood to confirm this condition. Treatment then typically involves dietary alterations and supplements to replenish iron stores.

Remember: early detection is key - so don't hesitate to seek medical advice if you have concerns.

Diagnosis of Iron Deficiency

After gaining an understanding of the risk factors for iron deficiency, it's crucial to know how this condition can be diagnosed.

Your doctor will likely conduct a physical examination and review your medical history as part of the process.

Blood tests will be used to check your iron levels and stores, along with other blood tests that could identify any underlying cause for the deficiency.

Physical examination and medical history review by your doctor

Feeling worn out and looking paler than usual, you decide it's time to see your doctor who will conduct a thorough physical examination and review your medical history as the first step towards diagnosing potential iron deficiency.

Your doctor will:

- Perform a physical examination:

- Inspect for signs of pale skin or other indicators of anaemia.

- Check your heart rate, blood pressure and respiratory rate.

- Review your medical history:

- Discuss any existing conditions that might cause iron deficiency.

- Ask about your diet and lifestyle habits.

Remember, diagnosis of iron deficiency isn't based solely on these assessments. A full blood count is essential to detect anaemia. However, iron deficiency can exist even when blood indices are normal, making this initial step crucial in the diagnostic process.

Blood tests to check your iron levels and stores

After your doctor completes a physical examination and reviews your medical history, the next step in diagnosing iron deficiency involves certain blood tests. These tests are crucial to assess your iron levels and stores.

A full blood count (FBC) test is usually conducted first to determine the number of red blood cells in your body. Also, ferritin, a protein that helps store iron in your body, can be measured through serum ferritin levels test. Low serum ferritin levels often indicate decreased iron stores signalling an underlying iron deficiency.

Other recommended tests might include checking for blood in stool or abnormalities in the gastrointestinal tract. Remember, these tests aim to accurately diagnose and empower you with knowledge about your iron status which allows for prompt action if needed.

Other blood tests to identify any underlying cause for the iron deficiency.

Beyond the basic tests for checking your iron levels, there are additional blood exams that can be performed to identify any potential underlying cause of your anaemia.

These tests aim to detect specific health conditions or disorders that might contribute to your iron deficiency.

One such test is a stool examination, looking for traces of blood which could signify gastrointestinal abnormalities.

An endoscopy or biopsy may also be done if a digestive tract issue is suspected. In some cases, urine can be tested for blood or haemoglobin as well.

For women with irregular menstrual cycles, a gynaecological evaluation might be necessary. All these additional tests not only help pinpoint the exact cause but also guide appropriate treatment strategies for your iron deficiency.

Treatment of Iron Deficiency

You've got several options when it comes to treating your iron deficiency, including dietary changes, iron supplementation, and even red blood cell transfusions in more severe cases. Dietary amendments may involve incorporating more iron-rich foods into your meals to address a possible dietary deficiency. Iron tablets or oral iron supplementation is often the first line of treatment; typically, the recommended daily dosage of elemental iron is 150-200mg. However, remember that these can have side effects like constipation or stomach upset. If you're unable to absorb oral iron well or have severe deficiency or chronic blood loss, intravenous iron therapy could be necessary. In dire circumstances where anaemia is extreme, red blood cell transfusions might be used as part of the treatment for iron deficiency.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are some good sources of iron that can be included in daily diet?

To increase iron in your diet, you can include foods like red meat, poultry, beans, whole grains and dark leafy greens. Consuming vitamin C-rich foods with these can enhance iron absorption.

How long does it usually take to recover from iron deficiency?

Recovery time from iron deficiency varies, typically 6 to 12 weeks for healthy adults. However, it's critical you maintain a balanced diet and take prescribed supplements consistently. Check with your doctor regularly to ensure progress.

Can iron deficiency affect pregnancy and how?

Yes, iron deficiency can affect pregnancy. It may cause anaemia, leading to fatigue and weakness. Severe cases could risk preterm birth or low birth weight. You're advised to maintain a healthy iron intake during pregnancy.

Are there any potential side effects of iron supplements?

Yes, iron supplements can have side effects. You may experience constipation, diarrhoea, nausea, or stomach cramps. In rare cases, they might cause fainting or chest pain. Always consult your doctor before starting any supplement regimen.

Can iron deficiency lead to any long-term health conditions?

Yes, long-term iron deficiency can lead to conditions like anaemia, heart problems, and growth issues. It's vital you maintain proper iron levels to avoid these potentially serious health complications.


You've learned about iron deficiency, its symptoms, risk factors, diagnosis and treatment. Remember, if you're experiencing fatigue, weakness or difficulty concentrating, you may be at risk. Don't hesitate to seek medical advice for a proper diagnosis. Treatments are available to help manage this condition effectively. Staying informed can make all the difference in managing your health.

Key Takeaways

  • Iron deficiency is a common nutritional disorder caused by a lack of iron in the body.
  • Risk factors include inadequate dietary intake, poor iron absorption, and significant blood loss.
  • Symptoms vary across different age groups and can be more pronounced during pregnancy.
  • Treatment options for iron deficiency include dietary changes, iron supplementation, and red blood cell transfusions.

This information is intended solely for New Zealand residents and is of a general nature only. No person should act in reliance on any statement contained in the information provided, but at all times should obtain specific advice from a health professional.

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