Low iron levels often indicate iron deficiency anemia. If, during a routine blood test, your doctor discovers that your hemoglobin levels are under 13.5 g/dL for men or under 12 g/dL for women, he may want to treat you for anemia. A hemoglobin level of 5 is very low; therefore, it's important to see you doctor to determine how to best treat your condition.
Causes of Anemia
The cause of anemia often stems from loss of blood somewhere in the body. Women of childbearing age who have heavy menstrual periods may become anemic, for example. If you have a stomach ulcer -- or if you take non-steroidal inflammatory drugs -- you may lose blood through your stomach or intestines. Another cause of anemia is eating a diet that is low in iron. Because pregnant and breastfeeding women have increased iron needs, they may become anemic if they do not take an iron supplement.
Dangers of Anemia
Most of the time, anemia itself is not dangerous. If your anemia is allowed to remain untreated; however, your heart may work too hard to pump enough oxygen-rich through your body. This can cause heart failure in severe cases. Anemia can also be a side effect of certain cancers, especially gastrointestinal cancers that cause internal bleeding. If you have unexplained low iron levels, your doctor should run tests to figure out what is causing the problem.
If you have low iron levels, you should eat foods that are rich in iron. Good sources of iron include lean beef, liver, oysters, iron-fortified cereals, fatty fish, whole grains and dried beans. Avoid eating these foods with milk or calcium supplements, as they can block the absorption of iron. Your doctor may also prescribe iron pills, which you should take as directed. Do not take iron pills without your doctor's approval, as it is possible to overdose on iron. In severe cases of anemia, you might need intravenous iron or a blood transfusion.
When to See a Doctor
If you have symptoms of anemia, see your doctor, especially if you are a woman with heavy menstrual periods. These symptoms include pale skin and lips, bluish whites of the eyes, headache, shortness of breath, fatigue and decreased appetite. If you see blood in your stool, contact your doctor right away. If you are taking iron pills and experience severe constipation, ask your doctor for advice on how to reduce this discomfort. See your doctor for a follow-up blood test to make sure your iron levels are rising appropriately with treatment.