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Iron deficiency

8-minute read

Key facts

  • Iron plays an important role in your body.
  • If you don't get enough iron, you can develop iron deficiency.
  • Iron deficiency can cause problems such as fatigue, poor concentration and anaemia.
  • The best treatment for iron deficiency depends on the cause.
  • Treatments may include eating foods high in iron, eating foods high in vitamin C to help iron absorption, or taking iron supplements.

What is iron deficiency?

Iron deficiency is when there's not enough iron in your body.

Iron is an essential mineral for your body. Iron is needed to produce red blood cells, which are important for:

  • a healthy immune system
  • mental function
  • muscle strength and energy

In red blood cells, iron forms part of a protein called haemoglobin. Haemoglobin transports oxygen through your blood. It carries oxygen from your lungs to all the cells in your body so they can work properly.

Your body can't make iron, so you need to get it from your diet. If you don't eat as much iron as you use each day, you become iron deficiency. Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional disorder in the world.

It's important to have the correct amount of iron in your body. If you have low iron levels, you can develop anaemia. If you have too much iron, it can be toxic.

What are the symptoms of iron deficiency?

If you have iron deficiency, you may not realise it as you may just feel tired and run down.

Low iron symptoms include:

  • feeling fatigued (tired), listless and weak
  • short of breath, dizzy and light-headed
  • struggling to concentrate and remember things
  • performing poorly at school or work
  • getting infections
  • behaviour problems in children
  • decreased libido (sex drive)

These symptoms can also be caused by other conditions.

What causes iron deficiency?

There are 3 main causes of iron deficiency:

  1. not eating enough iron-rich foods
  2. trouble absorbing iron
  3. blood loss

Not eating enough iron-rich foods

Your body can store iron but it can't make iron. Iron must come from your diet.

Some people need more iron than others, such as:

Babies need breast milk or iron-fortified formula in their first year. Babies who have cow's milk instead are more likely to become iron deficient.

Trouble absorbing iron

Iron in food is absorbed through your stomach and bowel. Some health conditions affect how much iron is absorbed, such as coeliac disease. If you've had stomach surgery, that can also affect how much iron you can absorb.

Blood loss

When you lose blood through bleeding, this means you lose iron too.

A common cause of too much blood loss is having heavy menstrual periods. In such cases, better menstrual control may help prevent iron deficiency.

Another common cause is bleeding in your stomach or bowel. This may be associated with:

Other causes of blood loss can include:

  • giving blood too often
  • losing blood due to surgery
  • some gut conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease
  • infection with parasites such as hookworms

When should I see my doctor?

If you think you might have low iron levels, see your doctor. It's important to find out why you have iron deficiency and what you can do about it.

Your doctor will arrange tests to look for causes of unexpected blood loss.

Make sure you see your doctor before taking any iron supplements. They can tell you the right type of iron and dose for you.

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How is iron deficiency diagnosed?

To confirm that you have iron deficiency, your doctor will talk to you and examine you.

The only reliable way of telling if you are iron deficient is through a blood test to look at your iron levels and to check for anaemia.

You may also need other tests to find out what is causing the iron deficiency. You doctor may refer you to a specialist.

How is iron deficiency treated?

The right treatment for you will depend on the cause of your iron deficiency.

Getting iron from food

The aim of treatment is to bring your iron levels back to normal. This can be done a few ways. Depending on your needs, your doctor may recommend that you:

Some foods and drinks stop you from absorbing iron properly. You can try and eat less of these foods, such as:

Iron supplements

Your doctor may also suggest that you take iron tablets or liquid iron supplements.

If you take iron supplements, you will need to take them for several months and possibly longer.

They may make your stools (poo) dark, and can also cause constipation. Your doctor may suggest you take a stool-softener to help with this.

You should only take iron supplements under medical supervision. This is because:

  • taking more than the recommended dose can cause iron poisoning
  • they can also interfere with other minerals in your body
  • they can interfere with your immune system

If you have severe iron deficiency, you may need an intravenous infusion of iron.

Can iron deficiency be prevented?

Most people can prevent iron deficiency by getting enough iron in their diet.

Check out this How to meet your iron needs poster to find out:

  • how much iron you need each day
  • which foods are the best sources of iron
  • how to include iron sources in your diet

You can read more about foods high in iron.

Infographic with tips for meeting your iron daily needs with your diet
For more information on How to meet your iron needs.

Complications of iron deficiency

Iron deficiency can cause anaemia. This is when you don't have enough red blood cells or haemoglobin in the blood because of too little iron.

Iron deficiency can also cause:

  • a weakened immune system
  • poor sports performance
  • pregnancy complications

Resources and support

You can call the healthdirect helpline on 1800 022 222 (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria). A registered nurse is available to speak with 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: May 2023

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