What is anaemia?
This is a condition in which there is shortage of red blood cells in the body. These cells carry oxygen from your lungs to cells around your body. If your red cell count is low, may feel tired and breathless, and look pale.
Anaemia can be caused by many things. The most common cause is not having enough iron, the so-called iron deficiency anaemia.
Iron is a mineral the body needs to produce haemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying protein in red blood cells. If there isn’t enough iron for haemoglobin, the supply of red blood cells drops and your blood cannot carry oxygen as well as it should.
Some things can make your iron level drop too low, and the most common causes include:
• Blood loss. Iron is lost when you lose blood. Blood loss could be sudden (such as from an injury or surgery) or more gradual (as occurs in prolonged slow bleeds from the gut or hookworm infestation). Women who have heavy or frequent periods are also more likely to get anaemia.
• Reduced intake of iron in diet. This can happen if you don’t eat enough iron-rich foods such as meat, eggs, beans, nuts and dried fruit. Pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers need more iron than usual to keep up with the demands of the babies. When they don’t, they may become anaemic.
• Reduced absorption of iron by the body. Dietary iron is absorbed into your bloodstream in the small bowel. However, the iron may not be properly absorbed if the small bowel is diseased or has been removed. Some medicines can also hinder iron uptake, such as antacids and other drugs that decrease your stomach acid.
What are the symptoms?
Iron deficiency anaemia can cause a wide range of symptoms, including:
• Shortness of breath
• Dizziness and light-headedness
• Pale skin colour
• A sore tongue
• Hair loss
• Unusual cravings for non-food substances, such as dirt, ice, paint, or clay. This is
• Thin nails that may start to curve backwards (called spoon nails)
• Poor muscle performance (for example, you may not be able to exercise as long as
• Restless leg syndrome. This means you have an irresistible urge to move your legs
to relieve uncomfortable sensations, such as itching or a ‘crawling’ feeling.
However, you may have no obvious symptoms if your anaemia is mild or develops slowly, because your body has enough time to adjust over time.
What treatments work?
Your doctor will confirm that you have iron deficiency anaemia by performing some blood tests. They may also do further tests to find out why you have it.
Treating iron deficiency anaemia is usually quite straightforward. The usual treatment is to take iron tablets, which enable the body to produce more red blood cells. You may begin to feel better after about a week, but it is usually recommended that you keep taking the iron tablets for an additional three to six months to fully replenish the body’s iron supply.
You may get side effects from iron tablets, including an upset stomach or constipation. Your stools may also turn black.
Taking your iron tablets with orange juice or vitamin C supplements may help the body process iron. Iron injections may also be used particularly if the iron tablets are not well tolerated or the anaemia is too severe. Occasionally, people need a blood transfusion to help replace their iron and haemoglobin quickly.
If an underlying condition caused your iron deficiency anaemia, you will need treatment for that as well.