How Do You Know If You Lack Iron?

  • Medical Reviewer: Dany Paul Baby, MD
Medically Reviewed on 7/8/2022

What is iron deficiency?

Iron deficiency anemia is another term for lacking sufficient iron in your system. You know you lack iron if you feel tired, weak, dizzy, lack an appetite, and have other symptoms.
Iron deficiency anemia is another term for lacking sufficient iron in your system. You know you lack iron if you feel tired, weak, dizzy, lack an appetite, and have other symptoms.

Iron deficiency anemia is another term for lacking sufficient iron in your system. Your body needs a certain amount of iron in order to get oxygen to all of your body’s cells. Iron deficiency anemia can affect anybody and will often present clear symptoms.

Iron deficiency anemia is a common condition that results in an inadequate amount of healthy red blood cells. When you don’t have enough iron, your body is unable to produce hemoglobin, the part of a red blood cell that gives it a red color and allows it to transport oxygen. 

Iron deficiency can be solved by consuming more iron.

Symptoms of iron deficiency

In many early instances of iron deficiency, the symptoms are so mild that they’re hard to notice. As your body becomes more deficient, though, your anemia will get worse, and so will the side effects. 

Signs of iron deficiency can include:

  • Feeling very tired
  • Feeling weak
  • Looking pale
  • Having chest pain or shortness of breath
  • Quickening heartbeat
  • Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
  • Getting frequent headaches
  • Having cold hands and feet
  • Swelling or sore feeling in your tongue
  • Having brittle nails
  • Getting odd cravings for substances like starch, dirt, or ice
  • Having a poor appetite

Causes of iron deficiency

There are a variety of possible causes of iron deficiency. They can include:

  • Loss of blood. Iron is contained in your blood within red blood cells, so if you lose a significant amount of blood, you also lose a significant amount of iron. If, for instance, you are a woman who experiences heavy periods, you’re at risk of being iron deficient because of how much blood you lose when you menstruate. Another case of bleeding that causes iron deficiency is gastrointestinal bleeding. This can happen as a result of using over-the-counter pain relief medication for an extended period of time–you can experience slow, chronic blood loss. This loss can be the result of a peptic ulcer, a colon polyp, colorectal cancer, or a hiatal hernia.
  • Insufficient iron in your diet. Most people don’t need to worry about iron because the body consistently gets this nutrient from food that is already a part of your diet. If you don’t take in enough iron, you may need to add iron-rich items to your meals. Eggs, meat, leafy green vegetables, and other iron-fortified food can all help boost your iron levels.
  • Difficulty absorbing iron. After you consume iron, your body is supposed to absorb it into your bloodstream while it’s in the small intestine. There are certain intestinal conditions, like celiac disease, that prevent your small intestine from absorbing the nutrients your body needs including iron. Similarly, if a piece of your small intestine has been surgically removed or bypassed, you might have difficulty absorbing iron.
  • Pregnancy. When you’re pregnant, your iron stores need to provide for your own increased blood volume in addition to passing hemoglobin on to your developing baby. If you don’t eat more iron or take iron supplements, you have an increased chance of becoming iron deficient.

Who is at risk of iron deficiency?

Iron deficiency can affect practically anybody, but there are certain groups more likely to be affected by it. These groups include:

  • Women. Your chances of developing iron deficiency are greater if you menstruate regularly.
  • Newborn babies and children. Chances of iron deficiency are particularly high if your baby was born prematurely or had a low birth weight; their only sources of nutrients are breastmilk and/or formula, which may not provide enough iron. Older kids need more iron than usual during growth spurts. If they don’t get enough iron in their everyday diet, they will be at risk of iron deficiency.
  • Vegetarians. If you don’t eat meat regularly, you need to add other foods rich in iron into your diet. Otherwise, you may develop iron deficiency.
  • Blood donors. Donating blood frequently can deplete your iron stores. This is more of a temporary deficiency but should still be remedied by taking in more iron.

Diagnosing iron deficiency

If you believe that you’re iron deficient, get in touch with your healthcare provider. Be prepared to answer questions about your medical history and your lifestyle. Depending on your symptoms, your healthcare provider may order tests to confirm the cause of what you’re experiencing.

Usually, there will be a full blood count test to determine if you have a normal amount of red blood cells. You don’t have to do anything in preparation for this test. It will tell you whether you have iron deficiency anemia or if you have another type of anemia, like vitamin B12 or folate anemia.

Treating iron deficiency

After your healthcare provider has determined whether or not you have iron deficiency, they will make a recommendation for your treatment. If your body simply needs more iron, you may be prescribed iron supplements if your red blood cell count is low in order to replace your body’s lack of iron. Depending on how severely deficient you are, you  may need to take them for up to six months.

If your body is reacting to a loss of blood, you may need different treatment. An issue with your digestive system will need to be remedied with antibiotics or other medications to treat an ulcer or surgery to remove a tumor or polyp.

If your body is reacting to heavy periods, your doctor might recommend hormonal birth control to relieve symptoms, including low iron. If you still bleed heavily, there are surgeries you can undergo to control heavy menstrual bleeding.


Sickle cell disease is named after a farming tool. See Answer

Preventing iron deficiency

There are a handful of ways to prevent iron deficiency. These include:

  • Addressing blood loss. Get in touch with your healthcare provider if your periods are heavy or if you have signs of digestive issues, like frequent diarrhea or bloody stools.
  • Eating more iron-rich foods. Add more sources of iron into your diet, like chicken and other lean meats, beans, and dark leafy vegetables.
  • Helping your body absorb iron. Eating and drinking foods like strawberries, orange juice, broccoli, and other sources of vitamin C will aid your body in absorbing iron.
  • Avoiding coffee or tea. Try not to drink these at meals, as they make it more difficult for your system to absorb iron.

When to see a doctor

Although iron deficiency is typically not a condition that must be treated urgently, you could develop complications if it goes untreated, including:

  • Weakened immune system
  • Increased risk of heart or lung complications
  • Increased risk of complications for pregnant women and their babies

If you think you are iron deficient, visit your healthcare provider. They will provide you with an accurate diagnosis and a plan for treatment to minimize symptoms and get your iron levels back to where they belong.

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Medically Reviewed on 7/8/2022

Mayo Clinic: "Iron deficiency anemia."

NHS: "Iron deficiency anaemia."

Office on Women's Health: "Iron-deficiency anemia."