Over the past year there have been more than 269,000 hospital admissions related to anaemia, according to data from NHS Digital. To put that into perspective, that’s more than the number of admissions for breast cancer.
Almost half of these admissions (116,361) were related to iron deficiency which, if left untreated, can increase a person’s risk of heart problems - including heart disease - as the muscle has to work harder to pump blood and oxygen around the body.
Dr Steve Iley, medical director for Bupa, told HuffPost UK: “Your immune system needs iron to function properly, so it [iron deficiency] can make you more susceptible to bugs or illnesses.
“In some instances it’s also been known to cause complications during pregnancy.”
What is iron deficiency anaemia?
Iron deficiency anaemia occurs when the body doesn’t contain enough iron.
The body needs iron to make haemoglobin, which transports oxygen around the body. If there isn’t enough iron, a person’s red blood cells cannot work properly, meaning oxygen is not effectively moved around the body.
People can become deficient in iron if they lose a lot of blood, are not getting enough iron in their diet or their body is using more iron than usual - for example, if they are pregnant.
“The most common symptoms of iron deficiency anaemia are feelings of lethargy, weakness or dizziness,” explained Dr Iley.
Other symptoms that could be a sign of the deficiency include:
:: Shortness of breath
:: Heart palpitations
:: Pale skin
:: Feeling itchy
:: A sore tongue
:: Hair loss, especially when brushing or washing hair
:: Finding it hard to swallow
:: Ulcers in the corners of the mouth
:: Spoon-shaped nails
:: Restless leg syndrome
“It’s really important that you see your doctor about any concerns,” added Dr Iley.
If you are experiencing any of the above symptoms, it’s really important to see a GP who can help diagnose the cause of your anaemia.
While in some cases the deficiency could be due to diet, according to the NHS it could also be as a result of an underlying condition such as menorrhagia (abnormally heavy periods) or bleeding in the stomach and intestines. In men and women who no longer have periods, the latter could be as a result by bowel cancer, stomach cancer, a stomach ulcer or taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS).
Doctors will often perform a blood test to determine whether a patient has iron deficiency anaemia.
The purpose of the test is to understand how many red blood cells they have.
According to the NHS, a normal red blood cell count is 4.2 to 5.4 million cells per microlitre in women and 4.7 to 6.1 million cells per microlitre in men.
When your GP has determined the cause of your deficiency, they’ll then be able to recommend an appropriate treatment.
“In many cases it can be treated by increasing the iron in your diet by eating red meat, spinach or apricots, or by taking prescription iron tablets,” explained Dr Iley.
For people who are vegetarian or vegan and need to steer clear of red meat, Dr Frankie Phillips, dietitian and spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association, recommends eating pulses, wholegrain cereals, dark green leafy vegetables and fortified foods. Apricots, prunes, figs and raisins are also rich in iron.
Dr Phillips told HuffPost UK: “Whilst the more efficient way to get iron in the diet is to include red meat, from which the iron is absorbed more effectively than plant-based sources, many plant foods provide iron.”
Teaming vitamin C-rich foods with plant-based sources of iron is also a winning formula, she explained, “as the vitamin C helps the body absorb more iron”. So having a glass of unsweetened orange juice alongside your meal, or having some extra salad or fruit, is definitely recommended.
Iron supplements can also provide a much-needed boost, however it’s worth noting there may be side-effects including constipation, abdominal pain or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, diarrhoea.
If this is the case, patients are advised to speak to their GP as they may need a different dose.