How can you tell if you have iron deficiency?
Because the signs and symptoms of iron deficiency (also termed anemia, iron deficiency anemia, sideropenia, and hypoferremia) can be very subtle, only a blood test can tell you for sure if your iron levels are too low. Anemia, which has several definitions, including a depletion of functioning red blood cells, can result from iron deficiency as well as other causes. However, some people with iron deficiency anemia have no recognizable symptoms at all. If the iron deficiency develops over a long time, causing an anemia that develops gradually, the body can adjust to the new state and you may not feel any symptoms.
On the other hand, if iron deficiency develops suddenly (such as the result of profound blood loss) the body has less time to compensate, and you may notice symptoms of iron deficiency listed below right away.
Even when symptoms of chronic, or long-term, iron deficiency are present, the symptoms are nonspecific and could be caused by a number of different problems.
- Symptoms such as pallor, fatigue, and shortness of breath are characteristic of anemia but can also occur with a range of different medical problems.
- Some individuals can exhibit muscle weakness, a decline in motor skills and mental changes such as memory loss.
- People with anemia may also notice palpitations or worsening of any existing heart problems, but again, these symptoms are not specific for iron deficiency or for anemia in general.
Some people are at greater risk for chronic iron deficiency.
- Women of childbearing age may lose enough blood through menstruation to place them at risk for iron deficiency.
- Young children (ages 3 months to about 3 years old) who grow fast and do not intake enough iron are also at risk.
- Vegetarians who do not consume enough non-meat sources of iron (termed non-heme iron or plant iron) may be at risk.
- Individuals who donate blood frequently.
How is an iron deficiency diagnosed?
The best way to tell if your iron levels are too low is to ask you health care practitioner to do a simple blood test. The types of blood test that are relevant for the diagnosis of anemia include the red blood cell (RBC) count, the hematocrit (the percentage of blood that is made up of red blood cells), and the hemoglobin level. Further tests can determine the size and shape of the red blood cells to determine the exact type of anemia that may be present. Blood tests (serum ferritin and serum iron) are also available that can evaluate your body's storage of iron.
Medically reviewed by John A. Daller, MD; American Board of Surgery with subspecialty certification in surgical critical care