What is anaemia?
You get anaemia when you don't have enough red blood cells. This makes it difficult for your blood to carry oxygen, causing unusual tiredness and other symptoms.
The number of red blood cells can drop if there is:
✿ a reduction in the number of red blood cells produced
✿ an increase in the loss of red blood cells.
Red blood cells and oxygen
Through its pumping action, the heart propels blood around the body through the arteries.The red blood cells take up oxygen in the lungs and carry it to all the body's cells.Your cells use this oxygen to fuel the combustion (burning) of sugar and fat which produces the body's energy.During this process carbon dioxide is created as a waste product. It binds itself to the red blood cells that have delivered the oxygen.The red blood cells then transport the carbon dioxide back to the lungs. We exchange this carbon dioxide for fresh oxygen by breathing.This process is called oxidation.
Why does a lack of iron cause anaemia?
Red blood cells are made in the bone marrow and circulate in the blood. They only have a life expectancy of about four months. The body needs iron, vitamin B12 and folic acid (one of the B group of vitamins) to produce more red blood cells. If there is a lack of one or more of these nutrients, anaemia will develop.Iron deficiency anaemia is the most common type of anaemia. Iron deficiency is more frequent in women who smoke, eat a diet low in iron and have heavy periods.
What causes this type of anaemia?
Most childhood cases are caused by a poor diet that contains little iron.In adults the most common cause is losing blood faster than the body can replace it.A lack of iron in the diet is common in vegans and vegetarians because the main dietary source is red meat.
Babies can develop iron deficiency, especially if they are premature. Storing iron is not usually completed until the final stages of pregnancy. The body needs more iron when a large amount of cell divisions occur, such as in pregnancy and during periods of rapid childhood growth. Loss of blood through heavy menstruation can deplete iron stores. Diseases of the small intestine such as gluten intolerance (coeliac disease) and Crohn's disease (inflammation of the intestine) can reduce its ability to absorb iron.
If there seems to be no cause for the iron deficiency, consult your doctor. Less commonly, small ruptures in the intestine due to cancer or polyps (small growths), and ulcers in the stomach and small intestine can cause iron deficiency anaemia. The loss of blood from the digestive tract may be so slight as to be undetected on its own.
What are the symptoms of iron-deficiency anaemia?
✿ Tiredness and palpitations (awareness of heartbeat).
✿ Shortness of breath and dizziness (fainting)
✿ Angina (chest pain),
✿ Leg pains (intermittent claudication).
How is it treated?
Iron tablets will rapidly reverse anaemia, so long as any underlying cause of blood loss has been treated. The tablets can irritate the stomach and should be taken after food to prevent this.Iron tablets may colour the stools black and cause constipation or diarrhoea.
There may be a need for intramuscular iron injections to be given instead of tablets, but this is far less common.
What can be done to avoid anaemia?
✿ Good sources of iron include liver, beef, wholemeal bread, cereals, eggs and dried fruit.
✿ If you often get heavy periods, it's a good idea to seek medical advice because you may be at risk of anaemia.
✿ If you are pregnant or planning to become pregnant, talk to your doctor about iron supplements.
✿ See your GP immediately if you notice blood in your stools or urine.