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Iron Deficiency

Iron deficiency is the most common known form of nutritional deficiency. In the human body, iron is present in all cells and has several vital functions -- as a carrier of oxygen to the tissues from the lungs in the form of hemoglobin, as a facilitator of oxygen use and storage in the muscles as myoglobin, as a transport medium for electrons within the cells in the form of cytochromes, and as an integral part of enzyme reactions in various tissues. Too little iron can interfere with these vital functions and lead to morbidity and mortality.

The direct consequence of iron deficiency is iron deficiency anemia. Groups that are most prone to developing this disease are children, and pre-menopausal women.

Total body iron averages approximately 3.8 g in men and 2.3 g in women. There are several mechanisms that control iron metabolism and safeguard against iron deficiency. The main regulatory mechanism is situated in the gastrointestinal tract. When loss of iron is not sufficiently compensated by adequate intake after some time that is determined by the state of body iron storage, iron deficiency develops.

Causes

* chronic bleeding (hemoglobin contains iron)
o excessive menstrual bleeding
o non-menstrual bleeding
o bleeding from the gastrointestinal tract (ulcers, hemorrhoids, etc.)
o rarely laryngological bleeding or from the respiratory tract
* inadequate intake (special diets low in dietary iron)
* substances (in diet or drugs) interfering with iron absorption
* malabsorption syndromes
* genetic defects of iron metabolism

 

Symptoms

Symptoms of iron deficiency are not characteristic, however the following may be present:

* Pale skin color (pallor)
* Fatigue
* Irritability
* Weakness
* Shortness of breath
* Sore tongue
* Brittle nails
* Unusual food cravings
* Decreased appetite
* Headache

Tests

* full blood count - microcytic anemia
* low serum ferritin
* low serum iron
* high TIBC (total iron binding capacity)
* stool for blood loss

Consequences

Continued iron deficiency may lead to a number of serious disorders, among them thrombocytosis.

Treatment

Before any treatment is commenced there should be definitive diagnosis of the underlying cause for iron deficiency, particularly in older patients who are most susceptible to intestinal cancer.

Then oral iron supplements mainly in the form of Iron (II) sulfate tablets.

More information

Recommendations to Prevent and Control Iron Deficiency in the United States


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