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Iron Deficiency Anemia: What You Need to Know

If you suspect that a patient has iron deficiency anemia, they are not alone. According to the Iron Disorders Institute (www.irondisorders.org), it is the most common nutritional deficiency and the leading cause of anemia in the world. If a woman is found to be iron deficient during pregnancy, her child may be subject to a host of problems, including premature birth, low birth weight, and delayed normal infant activity and movement, as well as poor academic performance or poor memory or cognitive skills later in childhood.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encourage people to understand what iron does and why it is so important to overall wellbeing. Iron carries oxygen from the lungs throughout the body and helps muscles store and use that oxygen. It is also used in cell functions such as digestion.

The two main causes of iron deficiency anemia are increased iron needs and decreased iron intake or absorption. Some people may have increased iron needs as a result of pregnancy or blood loss from heavy menstrual periods, frequent blood donation, or a stomach condition (for example, hookworms or a nutritional sensitivity).

The key to handling iron deficiency anemia is to know the signs and act early. The Iron Disorders Institute states that an individual who is iron deficient may have one or more of the following symptoms: chronic fatigue, weakness, dizziness, depression, headaches, sensitivity to cold, loss of interest in work or relationships, or shortness of breath while performing simple tasks. Women, children and the elderly should be particularly mindful of iron deficiency anemia since they are the groups that are most affected. African American and Hispanic populations are also susceptible, for reasons believed to be connected to their diet or different hemoglobin needs. Interestingly, men rarely experience iron deficiency. Anyone with the aforementioned symptoms or blood in the stool should reach out to their doctor immediately, and family practitioners should remain alert to the possibility of an anemia diagnosis.

Getting an actual diagnosis of iron deficiency anemia can be complicated, since there is no single test that medical professionals rely upon to come up with the label. Hemoglobin and hematocrit tests are used to screen the blood for iron deficiency. The former measures hemoglobin, a protein in the blood that carries oxygen, whereas the hematocrit test looks at the percentage of red cells in the blood. The trouble is that both tests may not display decreased levels until later stages of iron deficiency anemia. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention note that there are other blood tests available to confirm iron deficiency anemia including a complete blood count, serum ferritin which measures stored iron, serum iron which measures iron in the blood, transferrin saturation which measures the transported form of iron, and transferrin receptor which measures increased red blood cell production.

The National Institutes of Health emphasize the importance of determining the cause of iron deficiency anemia in order to ascertain the most effective treatment. Usually iron supplements and iron-rich foods are beneficial. Hematocrit levels typically return to normal after two months of iron therapy, but patients continue taking iron for another six to twelve months to replace the body’s iron stores in the bone marrow.

The most positive message for doctors and patients alike is to focus on prevention. A diet rich in vitamin C is recommended since it helps your body absorb non-heme iron, particularly when both Vitamin C and iron are eaten at the same meal. Lean red meats, poultry and fish can be helpful because the iron in them is easier for the body to absorb than the iron in plant foods. Patients who are pregnant should be educated about the possibility of using an iron supplement. The ideal is to strike a healthy balance because just as someone could be deficient, another patient might have iron overload and hemochromatosis. Get educated on the topic and talk to your patients about what they can do to identify this condition early and have a positive outcome.

By Jamie Lober, Staff Writer



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