The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes iron deficiency as the most common nutritional deficiency worldwide. Though it's more common in developing countries, many Americans suffer from low iron. Because of regular menstrual blood loss, women are especially vulnerable. Economic and nutritional factors place some minority group women at even higher risk for low iron and its associated health consequences. Recognizing the signs and symptoms of low iron can facilitate an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment.
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What It Feels Like
Low iron usually produces symptoms as it worsens. Symptoms are subjective; people around you may not notice that something is wrong, but you just don't feel right. Mild cases of iron deficiency may not cause obvious symptoms. With more severe iron deficiency, the likelihood of symptoms increases. The most common symptom of iron deficiency is fatigue. Athletic performance may suffer. Other common symptoms include shortness of breath, dizziness, headaches and a feeling of coldness in the hands and feet. An unusual symptom of iron deficiency is a craving for nonfood items such as ice, dirt or paint. This craving is called pica.
What It Looks Like
Signs of an illness or disease include objective manifestations that you or others can see or measure. When iron deficiency is suspected, look for pale skin, a rapid heart rate, brittle nails, cracks at the sides of the mouth, a swollen tongue and frequent or recurrent infections. Paleness is sometimes more obvious in areas like the inside of the lower eyelid. Women's hearts usually beat 70 to 90 times per minute at rest. A resting heart rate above 100 may indicate iron deficiency, although there are other causes. In mild cases of low iron, there may be no signs of illness.
When It's Bad
Iron is a necessary element for blood production. Much of the iron in the body is contained in hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying component of red blood cells. Insufficient iron leads to a reduced number of oxygen-carrying red blood cells in circulation. Fewer blood cells carrying less oxygen manifest in the physical signs and symptoms of iron-deficiency anemia. Unchecked, iron deficiency anemia can cause heart palpitations, chest pains or fainting. The immune system can become taxed to the point that infections become severe or even life threatening.
What to Do
A woman can become deficient in iron for many reasons, ranging from poor nutrition to intestinal bleeding. Identifying the underlying cause of low iron will determine the most appropriate course of treatment. Do not take iron supplements based on signs and symptoms alone. Too much iron can also cause problems. Most causes of iron deficiency are not serious and are easily treated. Armed with an accurate diagnosis, your health-care provider can direct you down the right path to recovery.