Iron is an essential mineral that is needed by the human body. It has to be sourced on a continuous basis and since the body cannot produce iron, it has to acquire iron from food. One of the most important roles of iron is that it partly makes up hemoglobin, a protein found in red blood cells. Hemoglobin is necessary to carry oxygen through the bloodstream to different parts of the body.
How To Spot Low Levels of Iron
The body not only uses iron on a continuous basis but also stores some iron. However, this can be quickly depleted if iron is not supplied constantly through food or if there is blood loss. Sometimes the body is also not able to absorb or assimilate the iron from food which can also lead to a deficiency. In pregnancy there is an increased demand for iron to provide for the demand on the monther’s body as well as the needs of the growing fetus.
It is not always obvious when the blood iron levels are low unless it is significantly low to lead to iron-deficiency anemia. This is a condition where blood has less hemoglobin than normal as a result of inadequate iron. It is the most common type of anemia, especially in women with heavy periods or who are pregnant. However, it can occur in any gender and may even be seen in men with long term slow bleeds like bleeding within the stomach or gut.
Low iron levels which leads to anemia may present with a host of signs and symptoms. Some are more obvious while others are less so, however, there is no characteristic signs of iron-deficiency anemia. This simply means that the signs and symptoms of iron deficiency anemia may also occur with a host of other diseases. Often iron-deficiency anemia simply appears as fatigue which be also occur with overexertion, insufficient sleep and psychological stress.
Therefore the only way to confirm low iron levels in the blood is to undergo diagnostic tests. This would require that a blood sample is analyzed in a laboratory. These blood tests would assess the levels of:
- Serum iron: measures the amount of iron in the blood.
- Transferrin: measures the amount of carrier protein that transports iron through the blood.
- Ferritin: measures the amount of protein that binds to iron and stores it within cells.
- Hemoglobin: measures the amount of red blood cell protein that is partly made of iron.
Read more on iron blood tests.
Signs of Low Blood Iron
If the iron levels are low for prolonged periods of time, it will eventually affect red blood cell formation and result in anemia. The blood’s oxygen carrying capacity may be lower than normal or the body produces fewer red blood cells. This the most likely outcome of low iron intake and assimilation or with blood loss. The signs and symptoms discussed below are of iron deficiency anemia specifically.
Read more on iron deficiency anemia symptoms.
The body requires a steady supply of oxygen for metabolic activities that produce energy. Without a sufficient oxygen supply, fatigue is a common symptom to arise. It may not always be immediately noticeable. In mild cases of iron-deficiency anemia, the fatigue is only noticed after physical activity that is not usually considered to be strenuous. In other words a person finds that their stamina or endurance is depressed. In more severe cases the fatigue is persistent and does not relieve even with sufficient rest.
Paleness and Bluish Skin
Paleness of the skin is anothe sign of iron-deficiency anemia. Skin color is not only due to melanin (the natural skin pigment that is brown) but is also due in part to the blood flow in the blood vessels of the skin. Due to changes in the body with iron deficiency anemia, blood flow to the skin may be reduced. This causes paleness of the skin and certain mucous membranes like the lining of the inner eyelids. In severe cases there may be a bluish tinge of the skin, particularly when exposed to cold. It is more likely to be seen on the fingers and toes.
Shortness of Breath
Shortness of breath is another common symptom of iron-deficiency anemia. It is the body’s way of signaling insufficient oxygen in the bloodstream and prompt deeper breathing. In mild cases it only arises with physical exertion. While it is not uncommon to be short of breath with exertion, in iron deficiency anemia a person is easily tired and breathless with phusical activities that would not be considered to be strenuous. In severe cases the shortness of breath is constant even when at rest.
As the body tries to compensate for the lower blood oxygen levels, the heart may beat faster in order to reoxygenate blood faster. In this way the cells can be supplied with more oxygen although the oxygen-carring capacity of the blood is reduced. The rapid heart rate may be palpable. It can at times feel like a pounding in the chest which is known as palpitations. Despite the rapid heartbeat, the blood pressure may be low (hypotension).
Dizziness and Lightheadedness
Dizziness and lightheadedness are symptoms of iron deficiency anemia. It is more likely to occur with physical exertion when the body’s demand for oxygen increases. Dizziness and lightheadedness may be an indication that the brain is not receiving sufficient oxygen. Since the brain is very oxygen-sensitive, even a slight insufficiency may result in symptoms like dizziness and headaches.
Another unusual sign of iron deficiency anemia is the craving of non-edible substances like sand and paint. This is known as pica. It appears the craving for the specific non-edible substance may be linked to iron and other deficient minerals being present in these substances. Pica is not common and more likely to occur with severe and prolonged iron deficiency anemia.
Depending on the severity and duration of the iron deficiency anemia, a person may also experience one or more of these signs and symptoms:
- Brittle nails
- Mouth pain
- Chest pain
- Poor appetite