Iron deficiency is very common, as discussed by Drs Jonathan Baird-Gunning and Jonathan Bromley of Canberra Hospital in the latest edition of Australian Prescriber. The deficiency affects a significant proportion of preschool children and women in industrialised countries. Other at-risk groups include the very young and the very old, and people with restrictive dietary patterns such as vegetarians and vegans.
In Australia, iron deficiency affects about 10% of young women, and is highly prevalent in indigenous communities.
Signs of untreated iron deficiency can include fatigue, the worsening of some symptoms like angina, disorders like restless leg syndrome, and memory and mental processing problems in children.
Any person with iron deficiency needs to be tested to find the underlying causes. “Ideally the first step towards correcting iron deficiency is for your doctor to do an iron study to assess your iron stores,” says Dr Baird-Gunning.
The treatment then depends on the severity of the iron deficiency and the patient’s other health conditions.
“There are lots of ways to correct iron deficiency, ranging from dietary advice—ensuring you’re eating enough iron-rich food—to taking oral iron supplements,” says Dr Baird-Gunning. “In more severe cases iron injections or blood transfusions may be needed.”
“One tip for people who are vegetarian or vegan and are seeking to increase the iron in their diet is to take an antioxidant such as vitamin C (e.g. a glass of orange juice). This may help improve the absorption of iron from vegetables.
Correcting iron deficiency is important, but too much iron can be toxic. The authors therefore warn that iron tablets should be kept out of the reach of children.
Australian Prescriber is an independent peer-reviewed journal providing critical commentary on therapeutic topics for health professionals, particularly doctors in general practice.
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