Iron deficiency anaemia - Risk factors and prevention
Updated: Mar 27
Anaemia occurs when you have a low level of haemoglobin in your red blood cells (erythrocytes). Haemoglobin is the protein in your red blood cells that is responsible for carrying oxygen to the tissues of the body.
Iron deficiency anaemia is the most common type of anaemia. This happens when your body doesn't have enough of the iron it needs to make haemoglobin. When there isn't enough iron in your blood, the rest of your body can't get enough oxygen.
Although the condition is common, many people are unaware that they have iron deficiency anaemia. You may experience symptoms for years without knowing the cause.
Iron deficiency anaemia can go unnoticed due to mild symptoms, which include:
Weakness or severe fatigue
Headaches, dizziness or light-headedness
Cold hands and feet
Chest pain, rapid pulse or shortness of breath
Inflammation or soreness of the tongue
Unusual craving for non-food substances, like ice or dirt
Poor appetite, especially in infants and children with iron deficiency anaemia
The greater the deficiency, the more pronounced the symptoms become, so if you have even a slight doubt, you can test yourself with the at-home FERRI-Check® quick test.
Certain groups of people are at greater risk of developing iron deficiency anaemia:
Females. Women lose blood during their menstrual cycle and are therefore more likely to develop iron deficiency anaemia.
Vegans and vegetarians. People who have excluded meat from their diet may be at risk of developing iron deficiency anaemia if they don't eat other iron-rich foods.
Infants and children. Infants who do not get enough iron from breast milk or formula, especially those with low birth weight or prematurely born, are at risk of iron deficiency. During growth spurts, children require more iron. Your child may be at risk of anaemia if they do not eat a healthy and nutritious diet.
Regular blood donors. People who regularly donate blood may be at a higher risk of iron deficiency anaemia because blood donation depletes iron stores. Low haemoglobin levels caused by blood donation can be treated temporarily by eating more iron-rich foods. If you are told that you cannot donate blood due to low haemoglobin levels, consult your doctor to see if you should be concerned.
Mild iron deficiency anaemia rarely leads to complications. However, if left untreated, it can worsen and lead to a variety of health issues, including:
Heart issues. A fast or irregular heartbeat can be caused by iron deficiency anaemia. When you are anaemic, your heart must pump more blood to compensate for the lack of oxygen carried in your blood. This can result in a swollen heart or heart failure.
Problems during pregnancy. Severe iron deficiency anaemia in pregnant women is linked to premature births and low birth weight babies. However, the condition is avoidable in pregnant women who receive iron supplements as part of their prenatal care.
Issues with growth. Severe iron deficiency in infants and children can cause anaemia as well as delayed growth and development. Furthermore, iron deficiency anaemia is linked to an increased susceptibility to infections.
Make sure you get enough iron to reduce your risk of iron deficiency anaemia. This is most easily accomplished by eating iron-rich foods such as:
Dark leafy greens, like spinach
Dried fruits, such as apricots and raisins
Iron-fortified cereals, bread and pasta
Meat provides more iron to your body than other sources but can be problematic to other aspects of your health. If you choose not to eat meat, you may need to eat more iron-rich plant-based foods to absorb the required amount of iron.
Choose foods containing vitamin C
Drinking citrus juice or eating other vitamin C-rich foods at the same time as iron-rich foods can help your body absorb iron better. Citrus juices, such as orange juice, contain vitamin C, which aids your body's absorption of iron from food.
Vitamin C is also found in:
Iron deficiency anaemia prevention in infants
For the first year, feed your baby breast milk or iron-fortified formula to prevent iron deficiency anaemia. Cow's milk is a poor source of iron for infants and is not recommended for those under the age of one. Start feeding your baby iron-fortified cereals or purees at least twice a day after the sixth month to increase their iron intake. After one year, limit the child's milk consumption to 20 ounces (591 millilitres) per day. Too much milk frequently replaces other foods, including those high in iron.