10 signs and symptoms you may have an iron deficiency

January 1, 2019

Iron deficiency is when a person does not have enough healthy red blood cells in their bloodstream. This is also known as iron-deficiency anemia.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 5,349 people in the United States died of anemia in 2016. While it is rare to lose your life to an iron deficiency, many people are impacted by iron deficiencies each year. With proper medical care, an iron deficiency can be easily treated. Iron-rich foods like spinach, broccoli, and meat can also help replace rebuild your iron supply.

The signs of an iron deficiency might be hard to spot at first, as they are similar to other disorders. Nonetheless, a combination of the below symptoms might mean it is time for you to see your primary care physician.

Here are 10 signs of an iron deficiency that you should be on the lookout for.

You're always tired.

Fatigue is one of the top signs of an iron deficiency, according to Sandy Procter, a registered dietician and assistant professor in the Department of Food, Nutrition, Dietetics and Health at Kansas State University.

"The way that iron works is that it helps to carry oxygen to different parents of the body," said Procter. "If you don't have enough iron, you might not have the capacity to do work. That work can be thinking and cognitive type work or physical work and getting oxygen to muscles and actually doing the work that muscles are to do. It really is that inability to move nutrients, particularly oxygen, that is the problem that contributes to fatigue."

Your skin looks paler than usual.

Due to a lack of iron, you have a decreased amount of oxygen in your bloodstream. This can cause your skin to lose its color.

"Iron is essential to make hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying pigment in the blood," said Procter. "When it's lacking, that's why a person might be pale."

Your hands and feet are always cold.

Circulation issues can be a sign of an iron deficiency, as well as other issues with your body.

"If you were talking to your doctor about some of your signs and symptoms, cold hands and feet might be on the list they would use to see if maybe they would need to check the iron levels in your blood," said Procter. "Certainly, circulation and other things can be other things besides iron, but if a physician is thinking in their head 'What am I hearing from my patient,' they may view cold hands and feet as a sign of anemia."

You want to eat dirt — and other experience other unusual cravings.

Procter cautions that researchers are not 100% sure that this is a sign of an iron deficiency, but it may have something to do with it. She said there is such a thing as cravings, particularly during pregnancy, and sometimes those are for non-food items. This is known as Pica.

"I'm not sure they know particularly what those are, there may be a nutritional deficient and iron may be one that a doctor will screen for," said Procter, who notes that iron is one of the first ingredients in prenatal vitamins. "Iron is needed early during infant development and pregnancy. Iron is a huge player for a healthy pregnancy. This is probably linked together with Pica or cravings for nonfood substances and possibly an iron deficiency because the demands for iron are really high in pregnancy."

These cravings might be for items like dirt or chalk, according to the American Pregnancy Association.

You are having trouble focusing.

According to researchers at Pablo de Olavide University in Spain, an iron deficiency can impact your cognitive functions. The study found that a lack of iron can interfere with your attention span, which can cause you to have problems concentrating.


You are not interested in the things that once excited you.

Listlessness can be a sign of anemia, according to Procter. If you don't have the energy or interest in activities that you used to enjoy doing, you may have an iron deficiency.

"If you are finding that your symptoms no matter what they are interfering with your quality of life or your ability to go about your activities of daily living, or if you are profoundly weary, you may have an iron deficiency," said Procter. "Maybe you're not sick-sick, maybe it's more of a lack of attention or you're not particularly engaged. If you are experiencing anything that is so out of the ordinary that you are seeing a performance difference in yourself, call your doctor."


You experience shortness of breath.

When there is a lack of oxygen in your blood, this can cause your body to go into overdrive as it tries to get more oxygen.

"Anemia is a later sign of iron deficiency, but other signs might be weakness, fatigue, and shortness of breath," said Procter. "Again, the failure to carry oxygen in the blood and to the muscles."

You experience dizziness and headaches.

Low iron levels in the body can cause impact your brain. When you do not get enough oxygen, this can trigger headaches and dizziness.

"There is a set amount of iron that is recommended for us to have every day in our diets. We need iron for healthy blood and basically for our blood to be able to carry oxygen," said Procter. "That's a huge job. If there is not enough, this is very simple, but if there is not enough iron in the blood then that capacity for it to carry oxygen is really limited.

You can't keep your legs still.

A study conducted by John Hopkins University found that a lack of iron can contribute to restless leg syndrome.

If you notice your legs are jumpier than usual and you can't seem to settle in, talk to your doctor about the possibilities of an iron deficiency.

Your heart feels like it is beating really fast.

A rapid heartbeat is not normal and can be a sign of an iron deficiency. According to a study published by researchers at Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine, a severe iron deficiency can manifest into overt heart failure and cause left ventricular dysfunction, which is when the left ventricle of your heart dilates.

"Iron deficiency can show up differently in different people. I find it hard to say that these physical symptoms that are the way it is going to be diagnosed," said Procter. "The best way to find out is to see your doctor and have a blood test done. They take a small blood sample and test your hemoglobin. This gives a doctor a quick determination."