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Iron deficiency anaemia: symptoms. How do you recognise them?

Sideropenic anaemia or iron deficiency anaemia is a disease characterised by a reduced amount of iron in the body. In this article, we will explore the symptoms of iron deficiency anaemia and learn how to recognise them. 

Iron deficiency anaemia: what is it?

Iron is an essential mineral for our body because it plays a role in numerous physiological processes. One of the fundamental roles of iron is related to the production of haemoglobin. Haemoglobin is a protein present in red blood cells that contains an iron ion (Fe2+). Haemoglobin enables red blood cells to transport oxygen (O2) from the lungs to the tissues and carbon dioxide (CO2) from the body’s tissues to the lungs. 

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), anaemia is considered diagnosed when haemoglobin values in the blood are less than 12 g/dL (grams per decilitre) in women and 13.4 g/dL in men

Low haemoglobin values may be related to an iron deficiency. In these cases, the doctor will also check the values of the iron circulating in the blood (sideremia), transferrinemia and ferritinaemia in order to have a complete picture of the blood iron levels, i.e., the balance and metabolism of iron in the body.

When there is an iron deficiency, there may be sideropenic anaemia. There are some typical symptoms that may vary in intensity depending on the severity of the iron deficiency. 

What are the symptoms of iron deficiency anaemia?

The causes of iron deficiency anaemia may differ and the doctor will investigate each case with diagnostic tests and an in-depth medical history. As regards the symptoms, sideropenic anaemia is characterised by:

  • Feeling of fatigue and general tiredness (asthenia);
  • Pale skin and mucous membranes;
  • Headaches and migraine;
  • Shortness of breath and difficulty breathing, even at rest;
  • Irritability;
  • Increased fragility of skin, nails and hair;
  • Difficulty resting;
  • Tachycardia;
  • Difficulty concentrating;
  • Dizziness and vertigo;

Many of the disorders (symptoms) of iron deficiency anaemia listed above are related to a general reduction in energy metabolism. This is because iron is an essential component, not only of haemoglobin and myoglobin, but also of cytochromes: enzymes that are involved in numerous metabolic processes. In cases of anaemia, the doctor will make the diagnosis by taking an accurate history of the patient.

On what does the severity of the symptoms of iron deficiency anaemia depend?

The severity of disorders related to iron deficiency anaemia depends on many factors. The most important are the following:

  • Levels of iron circulating in the blood (sideremia);
  • Amount of iron present in the body’s reserves (part of the iron consumed through diet is stored in the liver, spleen and bone marrow);
  • The age of the person (in general, children and adolescents require more iron than adults);
  • Presence of other diseases that can aggravate the symptoms of iron deficiency anaemia.
  • How quickly anaemia develops or whether it is a chronic condition;

On this last point, it should be pointed out that an iron deficiency anaemia that develops slowly over time can be difficult to diagnose because our body puts in place some compensation mechanisms, delaying the onset of symptoms. For this reason, it is not uncommon to discover sideropenic anaemia (of a moderate extent) that does not show symptoms. Asymptomatic iron deficiency anaemia is usually diagnosed during blood tests that have not necessarily been performed to detect anaemia. 

How do you combat the symptoms of iron deficiency anaemia?

A varied and balanced diet is usually sufficient to maintain normal iron values in the body. However, certain physiological conditions (menstrual cycle, pregnancy, breastfeeding) or pathological conditions (diseases affecting iron absorption in the intestine) may lead to iron deficiency or an increased bodily requirement for this nutrient

If we have any doubts and wish to obtain a targeted diagnosis to assess a possible iron deficiency anaemia, we should consult our doctor and have a blood test. Based on the outcome, the doctor will assess the most suitable therapy to bring the iron values in the body back to normal.

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