Iron deficiency and anemia are two pieces of a condition that often affects teenagers: fatigue. Teens may be tired for other reasons, such as staying up late to do homework or to study for tests, extracurricular activities or trying to manage a job plus school, but anemia from iron deficiency can make things worse. Signs and symptoms of iron deficiency can be subtle and easy to overlook.
Iron deficiency can result when you have increased iron needs. Blood loss from heavy menstrual periods may cause iron deficiency, as can frequent blood donations or food sensitivity. Iron may also become deficient if you don't eat enough iron-containing foods or can't absorb what you do eat. Vegetarians are at increased risk for iron deficiency because iron from plant foods is not as well absorbed as iron from animal sources.
The symptoms of anemia are primarily related to oxygen transport. Red blood cells contain hemoglobin, a protein that transports oxygen from the lungs to all cells in the body. Iron is an integral component of hemoglobin. Iron deficiency anemia -- the most common cause of anemia in American teenagers, according to KidsHealth.org -- causes a drop in red blood cells and hemoglobin. As the hemoglobin levels drop below normal, symptoms begin to appear.
Fatigue, Pallor, Rapid Heartbeat
The most common symptom of iron deficiency in teenagers is fatigue. The decrease in available oxygen because of inadequate hemoglobin means the body's cells cannot carry out their metabolic functions. Red blood cells provide the normal pink color to the skin, so a person with anemia may be pale. Your heart will beat faster because it's trying to get the required amount of oxygen to the body by speeding up the circulation.
Even before anemia develops, iron deficiency can affect your mental functions. You may have difficulty concentrating, remembering things or learning something new. As iron deficiency anemia progresses, you may feel tired all the time and short of breath. Climbing stairs or exercising can become a major effort, because your body cannot respond to the extra demand for oxygen. Headaches are another symptom of iron deficiency anemia. You may feel cold all the time, have an inflamed tongue or be more susceptible to infections.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Symptoms like fatigue and pallor indicate possible Iron deficiency and the resulting anemia. Blood tests can determine iron levels in the body, the number of red blood cells you have and the level of your hemoglobin. Iron deficiency may be corrected by dietary changes, but you may also need iron supplements. Since iron deficiency can be caused by factors other than diet, the correct diagnosis is important. If you have questions or concerns, consult a health-care professional.