Low Iron Common: Women and children especially at risk

Women and young children are most at risk for iron deficiency, but most are unaware they are anemic until diagnosed by a physician, according to Nancy Andrews, MD, an expert in iron metabolism.

Iron-deficient anemia reduces the oxygen-carrying capacity of red blood cells, thus decreasing energy and endurance. Those affected may have pale skin and be excessively tired and ineffective at work or school. Some may have heart palpitations and frequent headaches. Although rare, spoon-shaped fingernails and difficulty swallowing are also symptoms of anemia.

“Women are most at risk for iron-deficient anemia because they lose two to three tablespoons of blood each month during their reproductive years, resulting in a substantial loss of iron,” Dr Andrews explains. “Some women have difficulty replacing the lost iron through diet alone.

Children are also at risk for iron-deficient anemia, which most frequently affects children between six months and three years of age. Young children need more iron because they are rapidly growing. Iron-fortified foods including formula or supplemental iron can help treat early iron deficiency and prevent resulting anemia. Dr Andrews recommends taking iron supplements at night to increase their effectiveness and to prevent side effects.

Dietary changes can also help alleviate iron deficiency. Increasing the amount of iron-rich meat and vitamin C in the diet can be helpful. Vitamin C helps the body absorb iron more efficiently, while antacids, bran and starch can bind to iron and prevent absorption.

Children’s Hospital Boston, June 6, 2002