Iron Deficiency Anemia: Get the Facts

woman suffering from a headacheWhat Is It?

Iron deficiency anemia (IDA) is a blood condition in which the body fails to make enough healthy red blood cells. IDA is caused by a deficiency in iron, a mineral that acts as an important building block for red blood cell construction. It's the most common nutritional disorder in the world, affecting mostly women and children.

Who Is at Risk?

In the United States, 9 percent to 12 percent of non-Hispanic white women and close to 20 percent of black and Mexican-American women have iron deficiency anemia.

The two main causes of IDA are blood loss and low iron. Blood loss can occur from menstruation, recent major surgery or trauma or peptic ulcer disease, among other causes. Low iron may result from gastrointestinal diseases such as celiac sprue, Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis; a diet low in iron; and history of a bariatric procedure like gastric bypass.

Pregnancy and breastfeeding increase iron requirements, so both are risk factors for IDA.

Children who drink more than 16 to 24 ounces of cow's milk a day are at an increased risk for IDA. Cow's milk can lead to blood loss by irritating the lining of the intestines and can interfere with iron absorption.

What Are the Symptoms?

Symptoms of Iron Deficiency Anemia


Shortness of breath


Blue color to whites of the eyes


Increased heart rate


Sore tongue

Pale skin

Pounding or "whooshing" sound in ears

Trouble concentrating

Lightheadedness upon standing

Brittle nails

Craving for ice or clay, called picophagia

How Is It Treated?

Treatment for IDA depends on its cause and severity and individual factors, including your age, health and medical history. Your health care professional may advise:

  • taking supplemental iron, either in the form of pills or intravenous (IV) iron.
  • eating more iron-rich foods, such as meats, poultry, seafood, dark leafy greens, egg yolks, legumes, oatmeal, peanut butter, raisins, prunes, apricots, soybeans, whole-wheat breads and iron-enriched bread, cereal, pasta and rice.
  • in severe cases, your doctor may recommend getting a blood transfusion.

How Is It Prevented?
To prevent IDA, the best thing you can do is make sure you get sufficient iron in your diet. At times when your body requires extra iron, such as during pregnancy or breastfeeding, boost your iron intake even more with food and talk to your health care professional about iron supplements.


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