What is iron deficiency anemia?

Iron deficiency anemia is the most common type of anemia in children. Iron is an element that is needed to form hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is important in carrying oxygen from the lungs to the cells of the body. Iron usually is absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract. Iron then is stored in the body in the form of hemoglobin. Iron also is stored as ferritin and hemosiderin in the bone marrow, spleen and liver.

The diagnosis and treatment of iron deficiency is important because iron deficiency causes anemia and also because iron deficiency can affect a child’s neuro-psychological development. That is, iron deficiency can affect a child’s school performance, attention span, ability to learn, and other brain functions.

What are the causes of iron deficiency?

Iron deficiency can be caused by:

  • Blood loss. This can occur through the gastrointestinal or urinary tract or with heavy menstrual periods or an injury.
  • Inadequate diet. Iron is obtained from the diet and is absorbed through the intestines. The human body absorbs only about 5-10% of the iron that is ingested.
  • Body changes. There are certain times in life when rapid growth and resulting increased red blood cell production increases the need for iron. This typically occurs in the first two to four years of life and during adolescence. Pregnancy and breastfeeding also increase the need for iron to produce red blood cells. During these times it is difficult to obtain enough iron from a normal diet.
  • Gastrointestinal tract abnormalities. Some people have an abnormal gastrointestinal tract because of surgery or a gastrointestinal disease that prevents their intestines from absorbing enough iron from their diet. In addition, the gastrointestinal tract can be a site of blood loss.

What are the signs and symptoms of iron deficiency anemia?

The signs and symptoms are the same as those of other types of anemia. In addition, iron deficiency anemia may cause pica, a desire to eat peculiar substances such as dirt or ice.

How is iron deficiency anemia diagnosed?

Usually, anemia can be diagnosed through a blood test. Anemia is diagnosed by finding decreased hemoglobin and hematocrit levels in the blood. In some cases, an examination of the blood will show that your child’s red blood cells are smaller than normal. In these cases, iron deficiency usually is considered to be the cause of the anemia. To confirm the diagnosis, a blood test that examines your child’s iron profile and/or ferritin is performed.

Other laboratory studies and x-rays may be necessary to monitor possible blood loss and/or other effects that the anemia is having on your child’s body.

How is iron deficiency anemia treated?

The treatment of iron deficiency anemia depends upon your child’s age, the severity of the anemia and the cause of the iron deficiency. Your child’s provider may recommend an iron-rich diet, iron supplementation (either by mouth or intravenously) or a blood transfusion.

It is important that a child with iron deficiency anemia be followed until they have a normal hemoglobin and iron stores in the body have been replenished. After this, the child should be monitored to ensure the iron deficiency anemia does not recur.

About treatment for iron deficiency anemia at Children’s

Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders program achieves outcomes that rank among the top national programs and cares for more than two-thirds of Minnesota children and adolescents with blood disorders. In the program, families coping with iron deficiency anemia have access to the newest and most promising treatments and receive care spearheaded and coordinated by a board-certified hematologist/oncologist.

Contact us

If you are a family member looking for a Children’s hematologist or oncologist or wanting to schedule an appointment, call the outpatient clinic at Children’s – Minneapolis at 612-813-5940.

If you are a health professional looking for consultation or referral information, please call Children’s Physician Access at 1-866-755-2121 (toll-free).