What are the symptoms of iron deficiency?
The symptoms of iron deficiency may be very vague, particularly if isn't bad enough to have caused you to have developed iron-deficiency anaemia as well.
Some common symptoms are:
- Struggling to concentrate at work or college.
- Memory problems.
- Reduced ability to exercise.
- Hair losing its condition, and possibly hair loss.
- Nails becoming brittle and breaking or splitting easily. They may even change shape, becoming concave or spoon-shaped, or may develop ridges.
- Cuts and grazes taking a long time to heal.
- A sore tongue.
- Sores at the corners of your mouth.
- Restless legs syndrome.
- Infants with iron deficiency may not develop as quickly as normal.
- Pica syndrome: the craving or eating of substances not normally eaten, such as clay, chalk or coal.
When should I see a doctor?
Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency in the world.
If you have had one or more of the symptoms listed above, for more than a few weeks, you should arrange to see a doctor or nurse. You can then have investigations carried out, which will include looking to see if iron deficiency is causing your symptoms. If you are short of iron, it is important to get medical advice. This is not just to confirm that iron deficiency is the cause of your symptoms; it is also to find out why you are short of iron, as the cause can be serious.
Many of the symptoms of iron deficiency are also the symptoms of the busy, and sometimes stressful, lives we live. Tiredness and struggling to focus at work, for example, are very common and not usually due to iron deficiency. They usually just get better on their own after a week or two - or after a good holiday!
Further reading and references
Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition Iron and Health Report; Public Health England, February 2011
Micronutrient Deficiencies, Iron Deficiency Anaemia; World Health Organization
Iron Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet; Office of Dietary Supplements, National Institutes of Health
Wheal MS, DeCourcy-Ireland E, Bogard JR, et al; Measurement of haem and total iron in fish, shrimp and prawn using ICP-MS: Implications for dietary iron intake calculations. Food Chem. 2016 Jun 15201:222-9. doi: 10.1016/j.foodchem.2016.01.080. Epub 2016 Jan 21.
Jackson J, Williams R, McEvoy M, et al; Is Higher Consumption of Animal Flesh Foods Associated with Better Iron Status among Adults in Developed Countries? A Systematic Review. Nutrients. 2016 Feb 168(2):89. doi: 10.3390/nu8020089.
Pereira DI, Bruggraber SF, Faria N, et al; Nanoparticulate iron(III) oxo-hydroxide delivers safe iron that is well absorbed and utilised in humans. Nanomedicine. 2014 Nov10(8):1877-86. doi: 10.1016/j.nano.2014.06.012. Epub 2014 Jun 28.
Hoppe M, Onning G, Berggren A, et al; Probiotic strain Lactobacillus plantarum 299v increases iron absorption from an iron-supplemented fruit drink: a double-isotope cross-over single-blind study in women of reproductive age. Br J Nutr. 2015 Oct 28114(8):1195-202. doi: 10.1017/S000711451500241X.
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