Our bodies need iron for the production of red blood cells, which carry hemoglobin throughout the body. Too few healthy red blood cells can result in anemia, a common blood disorder. The signs of anemia are generally understated and vague. When anemia is mild, there may not be any signs at all. However, when it comes on quickly or is more severe, it can cause many general symptoms.
Without sufficient oxygenated blood, the body becomes fatigued. Typically, the first and most common symptom of anemia is a loss of energy. Fatigue associated with anemia is usually profound tiredness that affects one’s overall quality of life. The person may experience an unusual drop in energy levels that persists throughout the day, hampering daily activities. This symptom will develop even if the individual is getting adequate, high-quality sleep.
Anemia forces the cardiovascular system to work harder. Insufficient red blood cells or hemoglobin reduces oxygen transport to the organs and tissues. Inadequate delivery of oxygen from the lungs will drastically impact the heart and other tissues. An individual with anemia might experience an elevated heart rate because the organ must work harder to get oxygenated blood to the rest of the body. The heartbeat is especially elevated after exercise or other exertion.
If the tissue lining the eyelids — the muscous membranes — inside the lower lashes appears pale, this can signify a lack of hemoglobin or red blood cells. Besides this sign, anemia can also cause paleness in the face, palms, and nail beds. Do not ignore an otherwise unexplained lack of color of the skin as it may be a sign of anemia.
Iron-deficiency anemia can cause odd cravings for substances such as ice, clay, paper, and soil. Such desires are medically known as pica. The reason behind these cravings is still not well understood. People with anemia may find eating ice has an effect similar to drinking coffee, offering a burst of mental alertness.
Shortness of Breath
People with anemia do not get a sufficient supply of oxygenated blood to the organs of the body, leading to an increased heart rate and shortness of breath. This occurs because the blood is unable to transport enough oxygen to the tissues that need it. Difficulty catching the breath after simple exercises like climbing a flight of stairs may indicate anemia.
Migraines and tension headaches may become more frequent in a person with anemia. If treatments and rest do not ease the pain of headaches, a person should seek medical attention. Lack of oxygen-rich blood due to anemia can cause this symptom especially following physical exertion.
Dizziness or lightheadedness is a common sign of anemia, although it can occur with other health problems too. Vertigo — the feeling that a person or their surroundings are spinning — can result from disturbances in the inner ear and brain.
People with anemia can experience insomnia or difficulty falling asleep, or other sleep disturbances. Though insomnia in itself is not specific to anemia, this is a common symptom of people with this condition. Studies show a marked improvement in sleep once people with iron-deficiency anemia begin iron therapy.
Some people with anemia experience anxiety. As mentioned, anemia can cause an increased heart rate, and elevated palpitations can make an individual feel anxious. If stress intensifies without any particular reason and other symptoms of anemia are present, a person should consider the possibility of an iron or vitamin deficiency.
Heavy Menstrual Bleeding
Loss of blood is one of the most frequent causes of anemia. One of the more common reasons for anemia in women is uterine fibroids. These non-cancerous tumors of the uterus can result in substantial and painful menstrual bleeding that leads to iron-deficiency anemia. Therefore, heavy menstrual bleeding can deplete the body’s iron stores and increase the risk of iron-deficiency anemia, but could also be a preliminary symptom.
Difficulty in Concentrating
Reduced ability to make hemoglobin affects red blood cell production, impairing oxygen supply to the brain. In turn, this can affect mood and the ability to concentrate. Some people who experience this symptom require an increase in nutrients such as iron or vitamins that assist with hemoglobin production.
Numbness or Tingling
Lack of sufficient vitamin B12 in the diet or an impaired ability to absorb it can lead to both pernicious anemia and nerve damage. The latter may present with a tingling sensation, cold, or numbness, especially in the hands or feet. This sign is especially common with a vitamin B12 deficiency.
Restless Leg Syndrome
Some people with iron-deficiency anemia develop restless leg syndrome or RLS. This disorder causes an irresistible urge to move the legs, generally accompanied by odd or unpleasant feelings. People with this condition have a difficult time sleeping. RLS is not specific to anemia, but if an individual presents with this condition, a doctor may test them for iron-deficient anemia.
People with advanced forms of anemia often develop cramps in the legs. This sign is especially noticeable when exercising. Experts believe this symptom occurs because less oxygen is being delivered to the extremities during exercise.
Hair loss is a potential symptom of iron deficiency, especially when the reduction in iron stores is great enough to cause anemia. While it is normal to lose hairs — the average adult loses around 100 strands a day — excessive hair loss resulting in visible thinning or bald spots should be evaluated by a doctor.
Black, tarry stool can occur when there is bleeding into the esophagus, stomach, or intestines. In some cases, bleeding from the rectum can also cause this symptom. Bleeding is one of the most common causes of anemia. Therefore, a change in the color or appearance of the stools could be an indicator of a serious health problem that is also causing anemia. A change in bowel habits is a significant sign that a person should not ignore. In extreme cases, stomach or colon cancer can cause this symptom.
Thin and brittle nails are common with aging but can also indicate a nutritional deficiency. A lack of iron can cause the nails to crack and split easily. Such changes in your nails without an apparent cause could be a sign of anemia due to iron deficiency and the individual should seek medical care.
Pregnant women often become iron deficient. If the deficiency is left untreated, it can lead to anemia. This condition can increase the risk of giving birth to a low birth weight baby or premature delivery. Other causes of anemia during pregnancy are folate and vitamin B12 deficiency. Anemia makes it more difficult to get oxygen to the mother’s body, the placenta, and the developing baby.
Change in Tongue
Anemia can cause the tongue to change in appearance. Some people experience pain and swelling, a condition called glossitis. In some cases, it may be difficult to eat due to these symptoms. Anemia can also lead to small, painful cracks on the sides of the mouth.
Studies show an association between reduced thyroid function or hypothyroidism and anemia. Common signs of an underactive thyroid include reduced energy levels, sensitivity to cold, and weight gain. A doctor may test a person with symptoms of hypothyroidism for anemia.
Severe anemia markedly reduces the body’s ability to deliver oxygenated blood to the essential organs, including the heart and brain. It can cause chest discomfort or pain called angina, which is specific to the heart. Reduced blood flow to the heart caused by severe anemia can lead to angina and even a heart attack. This is most common in people with severe anemia and those who already have underlying heart disease or other medical problems.