• Iron Deficiency Anemia Overview

    Iron deficiency anemia is a common blood disorder that occurs when red blood cell counts are low due to a lack of iron. Without enough iron, the bone marrow can’t produce hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is the protein in red blood cells that enables them to carry oxygen.

    Iron Deficiency Anemia Treatment at Dana-Farber/Boston Children's

    Patients with iron deficiency anemia are treated at Dana-Farber/Boston Children's Cancer and Blood Disorders Center through our Rare Anemias & Iron Disorders Program. Continue reading to learn more about iron deficiency anemia or visit the Rare Anemias & Iron Disorders Program homepage to learn about our expertise and treatment options for this condition.

    Symptoms & Diagnosis

    Iron deficiency anemia, the most common reason for anemia in otherwise healthy children, is caused either by

    • Inadequate iron intake to meet the demands for red blood cell production 
    • Low-iron diet
    • Gastrointestinal tract abnormalities that limit iron absorption
    • Increased iron requirements (growth spurts) 
    • Iron losses, usually in the form of blood from gastrointestinal tract or other sites

    Iron deficiency anemia is usually an acquired disorder with simple treatment. Very rarely iron deficiency anemia can be an inherited phenomenon.

    Common symptoms of iron deficiency anemia include:

    • Pale skin, lips and hands
    • Irritability
    • Lack of energy
    • Decreased exercise tolerance
    • Increased heart rate
    • Sore or swollen tongue
    • Pica (the desire to eat substances that have no nutritional value (e.g. dirt or ice)

    A doctor may suspect iron deficiency anemia based on general findings from a complete physical exam and common complaints of typical symptoms. The condition is usually discovered through a medical exam with blood tests that measure the concentration of hemoglobin and confirmed by the measure of iron in the blood.

    The condition may also be diagnosed with a bone marrow exam in which samples of the fluid (aspiration) and solid (biopsy) portion of the bone marrow. Bone marrow samples are withdrawn with a special needle under local anesthesia. 

    After all tests have been completed, doctors will be able to outline the best treatment options.

    Treatment & Care Options

    Treatments for iron deficiency anemia include eliminating foods from the diet that might contribute to iron loss or impaired absorption, and augmenting foods that  are iron-rich. Oral iron supplements are available in several different forms and are the most common treatment to increase iron levels in the blood and replace iron stores. In some rare cases iron must be supplemented by IV. Only in very rare cases does iron deficiency result in a need for blood transfusion. 

    Your doctor will need to determine why your child became iron deficient? Was it due only to inadequate intake or are there ongoing losses of iron/blood contributing to the deficiency. This may require investigation for sites of blood loss.

    Long-term Outlook

    Iron deficiency anemia cannot be corrected overnight by oral supplementation but generally a child will begin to feel better a week after he/she begins oral supplementation. However, it may takes weeks or months to replenish the body’s iron reserves.
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