Diseases and Conditions Iron deficiency anemia

You can reduce your risk of iron deficiency anemia by choosing iron-rich foods.

Choose iron-rich foods

Foods rich in iron include:

  • Red meat
  • Pork
  • Poultry
  • Seafood
  • Beans
  • Dark green leafy vegetables, such as spinach
  • Dried fruit, such as raisins and apricots
  • Iron-fortified cereals, breads and pastas
  • Peas

Your body absorbs more iron from meat than it does from other sources. If you choose to not eat meat, you may need to increase your intake of iron-rich, plant-based foods to absorb the same amount of iron as someone who eats meat.

Choose foods containing vitamin C to enhance iron absorption

You can enhance your body’s absorption of iron by drinking citrus juice or eating other foods rich in vitamin C at the same time that you eat high-iron foods. Vitamin C in citrus juices, like orange juice, helps your body to better absorb dietary iron.

Vitamin C is also found in:

  • Broccoli
  • Grapefruit
  • Kiwi
  • Leafy greens
  • Melons
  • Oranges
  • Peppers
  • Strawberries
  • Tangerines
  • Tomatoes

Preventing iron deficiency anemia in infants

To prevent iron deficiency anemia in infants, feed your baby breast milk or iron-fortified formula for the first year. Cow’s milk isn’t a good source of iron for babies and isn’t recommended for infants under 1 year. Between the ages of 4 and 6 months, start feeding your baby iron-fortified cereals or pureed meats at least twice a day to boost iron intake. After one year, be sure children don’t drink more than 24 ounces of milk a day. Too much milk often takes the place of other foods, including ones that are rich in iron.

Treatments and drugs

To treat iron deficiency anemia, your doctor may recommend you take iron supplements. Your doctor will also treat the underlying cause of your iron deficiency, if necessary.

Iron supplements

Your doctor may recommend over-the-counter iron tablets to replenish the iron stores in your body. Your doctor will let you know the correct dose for you. Iron is also available in liquid form for infants and children. To improve the chances that your body will absorb the iron in the tablets, you may be instructed to:

  • Take iron tablets on an empty stomach. If possible, take your iron tablets when your stomach is empty. However, because iron tablets can upset your stomach, you may need to take your iron tablets with meals.
  • Don’t take iron with antacids. Medications that immediately relieve heartburn symptoms can interfere with the absorption of iron. Take iron two hours before or four hours after you take antacids.
  • Take iron tablets with vitamin C. Vitamin C improves the absorption of iron. Your doctor might recommend taking your iron tablets with a glass of orange juice or with a vitamin C supplement.

Iron supplements can cause constipation, so your doctor may also recommend a stool softener. Iron may turn your stools black, which is a harmless side effect.

Iron deficiency can’t be corrected overnight. You may need to take iron supplements for several months or longer to replenish your iron reserves. Generally, you’ll start to feel better after a week or so of treatment. Ask your doctor when you need to return to have your blood rechecked to measure your iron levels. To be sure that your iron reserves are replenished, you’ll probably need to take iron supplements for a year or more.

Treating underlying causes of iron deficiency

If iron supplements don’t increase your blood-iron levels, it’s likely the anemia is due to a source of bleeding or an iron-absorption problem that your doctor will need to investigate and treat. Depending on the cause, iron deficiency anemia treatment may involve:

  • Medications, such as oral contraceptives to lighten heavy menstrual flow
  • Antibiotics and other medications to treat peptic ulcers
  • Surgery to remove a bleeding polyp, a tumor or a fibroid

If iron deficiency anemia is severe, you may need iron given intravenously or you may need blood transfusions to help replace iron and hemoglobin quickly.

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