Even though iron deficiency anaemia can be easily treated, knowing when to start taking an iron supplement can be complicated and your symptoms can easily be mistaken for something else.
Here are six questions people often ask about anaemia:
1. Will I become anaemic if I follow a vegan diet?
Cutting out meat, dairy and eggs can increase your risk of iron deficiency anaemia, but you can lower that risk by eating smart. Haeme iron, the type of iron that is most easily absorbed by the body, is largely found in meat products, while non-haeme iron is found in plants.
While you won’t be getting iron and vitamin B12 from natural sources such as meat, eggs and dairy, you can still eat a balanced diet to avoid deficiencies. You can also increase your body’s ability to absorb iron by combining your iron sources with foods rich in vitamin C.
If you are in doubt about your iron intake, and you are starting to feel lethargic and suffering from headaches, talk to your doctor about blood tests to check your iron levels.
2. Can't I simply buy an iron supplement from my nearest pharmacy?
A store-bought iron supplement is an easy way to treat iron deficiency anaemia, but it's not something you should take without knowing the exact dose you need as an iron overdose can cause serious health problems.
It is generally recommended that adult males take 8mg of iron and adult females 18mg per day. A recommended amount of 27mg of iron daily is recommended for pregnant women, but they need to check with their doctor to determine whether this is enough.
When you know what dose you require, the next decision is if you want to take the supplement in liquid or tablet form. The amount of iron displayed on the label can be confusing; it is therefore best to find out the level of elemental iron in the supplement. All forms of iron are well absorbed by the body, but their elemental iron levels differ.
3. What happens if I leave anaemia untreated?
Iron-deficiency anaemia can cause serious health problems if left untreated for too long. Your organs need oxygen to function properly and with the low haemoglobin levels, your body is unable to produce enough red blood cells that carry oxygen to your vital organs. Your heart then ends up working harder to make up for the lack of oxygen. This strain can cause an enlarged heart or even heart failure.
Being pregnant with untreated anaemia can lead to premature birth, low birth weight and even foetal death.
4. Is lack of iron the only thing that can cause anaemia?
No. When the body doesn’t absorb enough vitamin B12 from the digestive tract, it also causes an inability to produce enough red blood cells. This form of anaemia is known as pernicious anaemia and happens when the body lacks the protein required to absorb vitamin B12 from the digestive tract.
There are also other serious forms of anaemia that may be inherited. These include aplastic anaemia and sickle-cell anaemia.
5. I don’t have heavy periods. Could I still be at risk for anaemia?
While a heavy menstrual flow increases your risk of an iron deficiency, there are many other factors that can cause you to be iron deficient, such as an unbalanced diet and a heavy exercise regime.
6. My iron levels are back to normal. Can I stop taking my supplement?
It’s important to carry on taking your iron supplement for at least another six months to build up iron levels in your bone marrow, even though the level of iron in the blood can be normal after only two weeks. Your doctor will continue testing your blood to monitor your haemoglobin levels. You should never stop taking iron supplements without consulting your doctor.
Image credit: iStock