Iron deficiency anemia is a common nutritional disorder that occurs when your body is low in iron. A decrease in iron levels causes a shortage of red blood cells, affecting the flow of oxygen to your tissues and organs.

Although iron deficiency anemia is generally easy to manage, it can lead to serious health problems when left untreated.

If you think you may have iron deficiency anemia, talk to your doctor about it immediately. Use this discussion guide to help get the conversation going.

What are the risk factors?

Although anyone can develop iron deficiency anemia, some people have a higher risk. Your doctor can tell you whether you have risk factors that increase your chances of being anemic. A few things that increase your risk of developing iron deficiency anemia include:

  • being female
  • being a vegetarian
  • donating blood frequently
  • being 65 or older

What symptoms should I look out for?

The severity and symptoms of iron deficiency anemia vary from person to person. Your condition may be so mild its symptoms aren’t noticeable. On the other hand, you may experience a significant effect on your daily life.

Some symptoms of iron deficiency anemia include:

  • fatigue
  • weakness
  • dizziness
  • headache
  • pale skin
  • cold hands and feet
  • sore or swollen tongue
  • brittle nails

If you’ve recently experienced any of these symptoms, try to give your doctor a rough timeline of when they began, how long they lasted, and whether you’re still experiencing them.

What types of complications can it cause?

It’s also a good idea to talk to your doctor about any complications of your anemia to understand the importance of staying on treatment.

Some examples of complications of having iron deficiency anemia include:

  • heart problems like an irregular heartbeat or an enlarged heart
  • pregnancy problems like premature birth and low birth weight
  • increased susceptibility to infections

What treatment options might work best for me?

Ask your doctor about the different treatment options available and which ones might work best for you. For most people with iron deficiency anemia, taking daily iron supplements is the most effective way to manage their condition.

Your doctor can recommend a dosage based on your iron levels.

Traditionally, adults with iron deficiency anemia usually take 150 to 200 mg per day, often spread out over three doses of around 60 mg.

Newer research suggests that every other day dosing of iron is just as effective and is better absorbed. Talk to your doctor about what is the best dosing for you.

If your doctor doesn't think your body will respond well to oral supplements, they may recommend taking iron intravenously instead.

Your doctor will likely refer you to a hematologist if you require intravenous iron. The hematologist will determine the proper dosage and schedule an appointment to administer the iron via IV.

What side effects can I expect from treatment?

You should also talk to your doctor about the types of side effects to expect from your anemia treatment.

High doses of oral iron supplements can sometimes lead to gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms like constipation, diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting. You may also notice your stools are darker than usual, which is normal.

Side effects from intravenous iron are rare, but can sometimes include joint and muscle pain, itching, and hives.

If you begin to experience any serious side effects after starting treatment, let your doctor know immediately. Examples of serious side effects are:

  • chest pain
  • irregular heartbeat
  • trouble breathing
  • a strong metallic taste in your mouth

How soon will my treatment start working?

The recovery period for iron deficiency anemia is different for everyone, but your doctor may be able to give you an estimate. Typically, people with iron deficiency anemia start to notice a difference after the first month of taking supplements. It’s also possible you’ll begin to feel better within a few weeks.

If you’ve been on the same dosage of iron supplements for six months or more and you haven’t noticed a difference in your symptoms, talk to your doctor about switching treatments.

Can I make any lifestyle changes that might help?

Your doctor may be able to suggest a few lifestyle changes that could help speed up your treatment. One of the most common lifestyle changes recommended for people with iron deficiency anemia is adopting a healthy diet rich in iron and vitamins.

Examples of iron-rich foods include:

  • red meat
  • seafood
  • poultry
  • beans
  • leafy greens like spinach
  • iron-fortified cereals, pasta, and bread

Vitamin C helps with iron absorption. Try to combine foods or beverages high in vitamin C with your iron.

The takeaway

In most cases, iron deficiency anemia is easily treatable. The sooner you talk about it with your doctor, the sooner you’ll be able to manage your iron levels and lower your risk of developing any complications.

These questions are only a starting point. Ask your doctor any questions you may have about anemia or iron supplements.

All questions are good questions when it comes to your health.