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 will not get as much oxygen as they usually would.

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

Other forms 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

The main symptoms of iron deficiency anaemia include:

If you have any of these symptoms, speak to your GP, as they can diagnose iron deficiency anaemia through a simple blood test.

Read more about the symptoms of iron deficiency anaemia and 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 taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), a stomach ulcer, stomach cancer or bowel cancer.

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

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

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

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 in the body affects your immune system (the body’s natural defence system).

Severe iron deficiency anaemia may increase your risk of developing complications that affect the heart or lungs, such as tachycardia (an abnormally fast heartbeat) or heart failure (when your heart is not pumping blood around your body very well).

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.

Iron deficiency anaemia occurs when there is a reduced number of red blood cells because of a decrease in the amount of iron in the body 

Symptom checker

If you have a health problem, our symptom checker can help you manage it or find out where to go for help

Page last reviewed: 24/03/2014

Next review due: 24/03/2016