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Iron deficiency anaemia - Symptoms and causes

Updated: Mar 27, 2023

Iron deficiency anaemia is a common type of anaemia. It is a condition in which there are insufficient healthy red blood cells in the blood. They are the ones responsible for carrying oxygen to the tissues of the body.

As the name suggests, iron deficiency anaemia is caused by not enough iron in the blood, and without enough iron, your body can't make enough of the substance in red blood cells that allows them to carry oxygen (haemoglobin). As a result, iron deficiency anaemia can leave a person feeling tired and short of breath.

You can usually treat iron deficiency anaemia with iron supplements. Sometimes additional tests or treatment are needed, especially if your doctor suspects you have internal bleeding.


At first, iron deficiency anaemia may go unnoticed. But the greater the deficiency, the more pronounced the symptoms.

Signs and symptoms of iron deficiency anaemia may include:

  • Weakness or severe fatigue

  • Headaches, dizziness or light-headedness

  • Cold hands and feet

  • Pale skin

  • Brittle nails

  • 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

When should I see a doctor?

If you notice symptoms of anaemia in you or your child, you should test the blood iron levels. Your doctor can then give you a definitive diagnosis. If you suspect iron deficiency, don’t take supplements on your own, consult with your doctor first. Overloading your blood with iron can be risky, as excess iron accumulation can harm the liver and cause other problems.


When your body does not have enough iron to produce haemoglobin, you develop iron deficiency anaemia. Haemoglobin is a component of red blood cells that gives blood its red colour while also allowing red blood cells to transport oxygenated blood throughout the body. If you don't get enough iron or lose too much iron, your body can’t produce enough haemoglobin, and you'll develop iron deficiency anaemia.

Causes of iron deficiency anaemia include:

Not enough iron in food. Your body obtains iron from the foods you consume. If you don't get enough iron, your body will become deficient over time. Leafy greens, eggs and iron-fortified foods are examples of foods that are rich in iron. Babies and children require iron in their diet for proper growth and development.

Blood loss. Since the red blood cells in blood contain iron, when you bleed you also lose some iron. Because they lose blood during menstruation, women who have heavy periods are at risk of iron deficiency anaemia. Iron deficiency anaemia can also be caused by a slow, chronic loss of blood in the body, such as from a peptic ulcer, hiatal hernia, colon polyp, or colorectal cancer. Regular use of certain over-the-counter pain relievers, particularly aspirin, can result in gastrointestinal bleeding.

Inability to absorb iron. The small intestine absorbs iron from food and transports it to the bloodstream. An intestinal disorder, such as celiac disease, that impairs your intestines' ability to absorb nutrients from the food you digest, can result in iron deficiency anaemia. If you have had a section of your small intestine surgically removed, it may affect your ability to absorb iron and other nutrients.

Pregnancy. Iron deficiency anaemia occurs in many pregnant women who don’t take iron supplementation because their iron reserves must support their own increased blood volume while also serving as a source of haemoglobin for the growing foetus.

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