Health Library

Iron-Deficiency Anemia


Anemia is a low level of healthy red blood cells (RBC). RBCs carry oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. Iron is needed to build healthy RBCs. Lower RBC counts mean the body is not getting enough oxygen.

Red Blood Cells
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Iron makes a critical component of red blood cells.
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Factors that play a role include:

  • Iron that is poorly absorbed in the digestive tract—may occur due to intestinal diseases or surgery
  • Chronic bleeding , such as heavy menstrual bleeding or bleeding in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract
  • Not enough iron in the diet—common cause in infants, children, and pregnant women

Risk Factors

These factors may increase your chance of developing this condition:

  • Rapid growth cycles—may occur with infancy or adolescence
  • Heavy menstrual bleeding or chronic blood loss from the GI tract
  • Pregnancy
  • Breastfed infants who have not started on solid food after 6 months of age
  • Babies who are given cow’s milk prior to age 12 months
  • Alcoholism
  • Diets that contain insufficient iron—rare in the United States


Most people with mild anemia have no symptoms. In those who do have them, anemia may cause:

  • Fatigue
  • Pale skin
  • Fingernail changes
  • Weakness
  • Headache
  • Decreased work capacity
  • Heart palpitations
  • Infection
  • Craving to eat things that are not food (called pica), such as ice or clay
  • Hair loss
  • Shortness of breath during or after physical activity


You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done.

Your bodily fluids and waste products may be tested. This can be done with:

  • Blood tests
  • Stool tests


Treatments may include:

Iron Supplements

Iron can be taken as a supplement or as part of a multivitamin. Iron comes in many "salt" forms. Ferrous salts are better absorbed than ferric salts. Ferrous sulfate is the cheapest and most commonly used iron salt. Slow-release or coated products may cause less stomach problems. However, they may not be absorbed as well. Some products contain vitamin C to improve absorption. Talk to your doctor, though, because your iron level could get too high.

Iron-Fortified Cereal

Your doctor may recommend that you feed your baby iron-fortified cereal.


To help reduce your chance of having anemia:

  • Eat a diet rich in iron , such as oysters, meat, poultry, or fish.
  • Avoid foods that interfere with iron absorption, such as black tea.

Ask your doctor if your infant is getting enough iron. General guidelines include:

  • Starting at 4 months, breastfed infants need an iron supplement until they get enough iron from other sources, like infant cereal or iron-fortified formula.
  • Bottle-fed infants should get a formula that is fortified with iron.
  • Many premature infants need extra iron starting at 1 month of age.


American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists

Healthy Children—American Academy of Pediatrics

Canadian Resources

Dietitians of Canada

Health Canada


Iron. EBSCO Natural and Alternative Treatments website. Available at: Updated August 2013. Accessed September 23, 2015.

Iron deficiency in adults. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: Updated June 9, 2015. Accessed September 23, 2015.

Iron deficiency in children (infancy through adolescence). EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: Updated June 22, 2015. Accessed September 23, 2015.

Iron fortification of infant formulas. Pediatrics. 1999;104:119-123.

US Preventive Services Task Force. The Guide to Clinical Preventive Services: Report of the United States Preventive Services Task Force. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2002.

US Preventive Services Task Force. The Guide to Clinical Preventive Services: Report of the United States Preventive Services Task Force. AHRQ Publication No. 06-0588; Rockville, MD: 2006.

10/12/2010 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance Baker R, Greer F, et al. Diagnosis and prevention of iron deficiency and iron-deficiency anemia in infants and young children (0-3 years of age). Pediatrics. 2010;126(5):1040-1050.