Introduction 

Iron deficiency anaemia is a condition where a lack of iron in the body leads to a reduction in the number of red blood cells.

Iron is used to produce red blood cells, which help store and carry oxygen in the blood. If you have fewer red blood cells than is normal, your organs and tissues won't get as much oxygen as they usually would.

There are several different types of anaemia, and each one has a different cause. Iron deficiency anaemia is the most common type.

Other types of anaemia can be caused by a lack of vitamin B12 or folate in the body – read more about vitamin B12 and folate deficiency anaemia.

Symptoms of iron deficiency anaemia

Many people with iron deficiency anaemia only have a few symptoms. The severity of the symptoms largely depends on how quickly anaemia develops.

You may notice symptoms immediately, or they may develop gradually if your anaemia is caused by a long-term problem, such as a stomach ulcer.

The most common symptoms include:

Less common symptoms include:

  • headache 
  • hearing sounds that come from inside the body, rather than from an outside source (tinnitus)
  • an altered sense of taste
  • feeling itchy
  • a sore or abnormally smooth tongue
  • hair loss
  • a desire to eat non-food items, such as ice, paper or clay (pica)
  • difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)
  • painful open sores (ulcers) on the corners of your mouth
  • spoon-shaped nails

When to see your GP

See your GP if you experience symptoms of iron deficiency anaemia. They should be able to diagnose the condition using a simple blood test.

Read more about diagnosing iron deficiency anaemia.

What causes iron deficiency anaemia?

There are many things that can lead to a lack of iron in the body. In men and post-menopausal women, the most common cause is bleeding in the stomach and intestines.

This can be caused by a stomach ulcer, stomach cancer, bowel cancer, or by taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).

In women of reproductive age, heavy periods and pregnancy are the most common causes of iron deficiency anaemia as your body needs extra iron for your baby during pregnancy.

Unless you're pregnant, it's rare for iron deficiency anaemia to be caused just by a lack of iron in your diet. However, if you do lack dietary iron, it may mean you're more likely to develop anaemia than if you have one of the problems mentioned above.

Read more about the causes of iron deficiency anaemia.

How iron deficiency anaemia is treated

Treatment for iron deficiency anaemia involves taking iron supplements to boost the low levels of iron in your body. This is usually effective, and the condition rarely causes long-term problems.

You'll need to be monitored every few months to check the treatment is working and your iron levels have returned to normal.

The underlying cause will need to be treated so you don't get anaemia again. Increasing the amount of iron in your diet may also be recommended.

Good sources of iron include:

  • dark-green leafy vegetables, such as watercress and curly kale
  • iron-fortified cereals or bread
  • brown rice 
  • pulses and beans
  • nuts and seeds
  • meat, fish and tofu
  • eggs
  • dried fruit, such as dried apricots, prunes and raisins

Read more about treating iron deficiency anaemia.

Further problems

If iron deficiency anaemia is left untreated, it can make you more susceptible to illness and infection, as a lack of iron affects the body's natural defence system (the immune system).

Severe iron deficiency anaemia may increase your risk of developing complications that affect the heart or lungs, such as an abnormally fast heartbeat (tachycardia) or heart failure, where your heart is unable to pump enough blood around your body at the right pressure.

Pregnant women with severe or untreated anaemia also have a higher risk of complications before and after birth.

Read more about the complications of iron deficiency anaemia.

Page last reviewed: 14/01/2016

Next review due: 14/01/2018