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Low iron in children: causes and remedies

Iron is a very important nutrient to support children’s growth. Under normal health conditions, a diet with iron-rich foods is sufficient to ensure normal levels of this nutrient in the body. In some cases, however, blood tests may reveal low iron levels. Let’s find out what causes low iron in children and what remedies are available to restore normal iron levels in the body. 

Low iron levels in children: what are the causes?

The growth and development of the body during childhood and adolescence require an increased bodily need for iron. Iron plays a role in numerous metabolic functions that regulate the body’s growth, the development of the immune system and normal cognitive function. Iron is also essential for the formation of haemoglobin and myoglobin, proteins that enable the transport of molecular oxygen in the blood and muscles, respectively. 

The increased bodily demand for iron in children, if not supported by a diet capable of providing the right daily amounts of this nutrient, can lead to iron deficiency. When faced with a deficiency, the analysis of sideremia, transferrinemia and ferritinaemia reveal low iron values in the blood. As a key component of the haem group structure of haemoglobin, low iron in the blood is often related to low haemoglobin values.

The causes of low iron in children are as follows:

  1. Low iron intake with diet, often due to poor nutrition. 
  2. Physiological conditions requiring increased iron requirements: rapid growth in the first years of life requires more iron than in adulthood. Therefore, iron deficiencies due to physiological causes have a higher incidence amongst children and adolescents. In the case of girls, another factor that can determine an iron deficiency is the menstrual cycle, especially if it is characterised by heavy blood loss.
  3. Inflammatory pathologies of the gastrointestinal tract (e.g., Crohn’s disease) or enzymatic deficiencies of the intestinal mucosa (e.g., duodenal cytochrome B deficiency, which reduces trivalent iron (Fe3+) to bivalent iron (Fe2+), facilitating its absorption). Bacterial or viral infections of the intestine can also decrease iron absorption. [iron absorption page link]
  4. Most of the iron present at birth is what the baby has absorbed through the placenta during the last three months of pregnancy. In prematurely born babies, therefore, low iron is caused by a low prenatal iron deposit. Iron deficiency in the mother during pregnancy can also lead to a low iron deposit in the new-born.

What are the symptoms of low iron in children?

The symptoms of low iron in children are the classic symptoms of iron deficiency:

  • General fatigue and asthenia;
  • Headache, migraine and irritability;
  • Pale skin and mucous membranes;
  • Sleep disorders;
  • Disorders of breathing and shortness of breath, even at rest;
  • Tachycardia;
  • Difficulty concentrating;
  • Growth slowdown (in cases of major and prolonged iron deficiencies);

In some cases, low iron in children may also not show any symptoms. A mild iron deficiency or a very slow onset iron deficiency can only be diagnosed by blood tests prescribed by the paediatrician. 

What are the remedies for combating low iron in children?

In normal health conditions, remedies for combating low iron in children and restoring normal levels in the body are as follows:

  • a varied and balanced diet that includes iron-rich foods. Foods rich in iron, it must be recalled that animal-based foods (meat, liver, spleen, fish) contain haem iron, a form of iron more easily assimilated by our body. Plant-based foods (green leafy vegetables, legumes, cereals), on the other hand, contain non-haem iron, which is assimilated more slowly by the body. Foods rich in vitamin C (citrus fruits, pineapple, kiwi) facilitate the absorption of iron introduced with the diet.
  • When diet alone is not sufficient to ensure the correct supply of iron to the body, the paediatrician may also recommend iron supplementation through certain food supplements that can meet the body’s daily needs. 

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