1. Is iron deficiency the same thing as anaemia? What are the symptoms?
Iron deficiency refers to a decrease in the amount of iron stored in the body, while anaemia refers to a drop in the number of red blood cells (RBCs) and/or the amount of haemoglobin within the RBCs. It typically takes several weeks after iron stores are depleted for the level of haemoglobin and production of RBCs to be affected and for anaemia to develop. There usually are few symptoms early in iron deficiency. However, as the condition worsens blood levels of haemoglobin and RBCs decrease, then ongoing weakness and fatigue can develop.
As the iron levels continue to be depleted further, symptoms of the anaemia may develop such as shortness of breath and dizziness. If the anaemia is severe then chest pain, headaches, and leg pains may occur. Children may develop learning (cognitive) disabilities. Other symptoms may also present that are characteristic of iron deficiency. These include pica (cravings for specific substances, such as liquorice, chalk, dirt, or clay), a burning sensation in the tongue or a smooth tongue, sores at the corners of the mouth, and spoon-shaped finger- and toe-nails.
2. Does anaemia due to iron deficiency happen quickly or does it take a long time?
Iron deficiency anaemia comes on gradually. When your rate of iron loss exceeds the amount of iron you absorb from your diet, the first thing that occurs is that iron stores are used up. In this stage, ferritin will be low, but blood iron levels are usually normal and there is no anaemia. As iron deficiency worsens, blood iron levels fall, and red blood cells may start to become small and pale, but there is still an adequate number of red blood cells. With prolonged or severe iron deficiency, anaemia develops.
The most common symptom is pain, as iron accumulates in your body, usually in your joints. Other symptoms include tiredness and lack of energy, abdominal pain (pain around the stomach area), loss of sex drive, and heart problems. Some people, however, have no symptoms of this condition.
Haem-iron is the easiest form of iron for the body to absorb. It is found in meats and eggs. Non-haem iron is found in a wide variety of plants and in iron supplements. Iron-rich sources include: dark green leafy vegetables, (such as spinach, watercress and curly kale), iron-fortified breads, apricots, raisins, and nuts. However, the amount of iron that is absorbed in the gut can also be altered by other substances in your diet, such as Vitamin C. If you have been diagnosed with iron deficiency anaemia or you are pregnant or breast feeding, vitamin pills or tablets may be needed to provide extra iron. Ask your doctor about the right supplement for you.
5. My friend told me I can take too much iron — is that right?
Unless you have iron deficiency or eat a very poor diet, you probably don't need extra iron supplements. If you take in much more iron than is recommended, you may develop haemosiderosis, which causes a rise in blood iron and ferritin levels. If you have an inherited disorder called hereditary haemochromatosis, taking extra iron can cause more rapid iron accumulation and possibly accelerate the rate of damage to your organs.
This article was last reviewed on 21 November 2012. | This article was last modified on 24 September 2013.
The review date indicates when the article was last reviewed from beginning to end to ensure that it reflects the most current science. A review may not require any modifications to the article, so the two dates may not always agree.
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