Treatment for iron-deficiency anemia will depend on its cause and severity. Treatments may include dietary changes and supplements, medicines, and surgery.
Severe iron-deficiency anemia may require a blood transfusion, iron injections, or intravenous (IV) iron therapy. Treatment may need to be done in a hospital.
The goals of treating iron-deficiency anemia are to treat its underlying cause and restore normal levels of red blood cells, hemoglobin, and iron.
Dietary Changes and Supplements
You may need iron supplements to build up your iron levels as quickly as possible. Iron supplements can correct low iron levels within months. Supplements come in pill form or in drops for children.
Large amounts of iron can be harmful, so take iron supplements only as your doctor prescribes. Keep iron supplements out of reach from children. This will prevent them from taking an overdose of iron.
Iron supplements can cause side effects, such as dark stools, stomach irritation, and heartburn. Iron also can cause constipation, so your doctor may suggest that you use a stool softener.
Your doctor may advise you to eat more foods that are rich in iron. The best source of iron is red meat, especially beef and liver. Chicken, turkey, pork, fish, and shellfish also are good sources of iron.
The body tends to absorb iron from meat better than iron from nonmeat foods. However, some nonmeat foods also can help you raise your iron levels. Examples of nonmeat foods that are good sources of iron include:
- Iron-fortified breads and cereals
- Peas; lentils; white, red, and baked beans; soybeans; and chickpeas
- Dried fruits, such as prunes, raisins, and apricots
- Spinach and other dark green leafy vegetables
- Prune juice
The Nutrition Facts labels on packaged foods will show how much iron the items contain. The amount is given as a percentage of the total amount of iron you need every day.
Vitamin C helps the body absorb iron. Good sources of vitamin C are vegetables and fruits, especially citrus fruits. Citrus fruits include oranges, grapefruits, tangerines, and similar fruits. Fresh and frozen fruits, vegetables, and juices usually have more vitamin C than canned ones.
If you're taking medicines, ask your doctor or pharmacist whether you can eat grapefruit or drink grapefruit juice. Grapefruit can affect the strength of a few medicines and how well they work.
Other fruits rich in vitamin C include kiwi fruit, strawberries, and cantaloupes.
Vegetables rich in vitamin C include broccoli, peppers, Brussels sprouts, tomatoes, cabbage, potatoes, and leafy green vegetables like turnip greens and spinach.
Treatment To Stop Bleeding
If blood loss is causing iron-deficiency anemia, treatment will depend on the cause of the bleeding. For example, if you have a bleeding ulcer, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics and other medicines to treat the ulcer.
If a polyp or cancerous tumor in your intestine is causing bleeding, you may need surgery to remove the growth.
If you have heavy menstrual flow, your doctor may prescribe birth control pills to help reduce your monthly blood flow. In some cases, surgery may be advised.
Treatments for Severe Iron-Deficiency Anemia
If your iron-deficiency anemia is severe, you may get a transfusion of red blood cells. A blood transfusion is a safe, common procedure in which blood is given to you through an IV line in one of your blood vessels. A transfusion requires careful matching of donated blood with the recipient's blood.
A transfusion of red blood cells will treat your anemia right away. The red blood cells also give a source of iron that your body can reuse. However, a blood transfusion is only a short-term treatment. Your doctor will need to find and treat the cause of your anemia.
Blood transfusions are usually reserved for people whose anemia puts them at a higher risk for heart problems or other severe health issues.
For more information, go to the Health Topics Blood Transfusion article.
If you have severe anemia, your doctor may recommend iron therapy. For this treatment, iron is injected into a muscle or an IV line in one of your blood vessels.
IV iron therapy presents some safety concerns. It must be done in a hospital or clinic by experienced staff. Iron therapy usually is given to people who need iron long-term but can't take iron supplements by mouth. This therapy also is given to people who need immediate treatment for iron-deficiency anemia.
Living With and Managing Iron-Deficiency Anemia05/18/2011
This video—presented by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health—shows how Susan, a full-time worker and student, has coped with having iron-deficiency anemia. Prior to her diagnosis, Susan had symptoms such as tiredness, poor skin tone, dizziness, and depression.
After her doctor diagnosed her with iron-deficiency anemia, Susan got counseling on how to improve her health and well-being. She began taking iron supplements and multivitamins to improve her iron levels. Susan also made changes to her diet, such as focusing more on green leafy vegetables, red meats, nuts, dried fruits, and beans. Other lifestyle changes, such as getting enough sleep and exercising, also have helped Susan feel better.
To further improve her condition, Susan had a minor surgical procedure to stop her monthly periods. By following her treatment plan and making smart lifestyle choices, Susan continues to feel better and see the benefits of treatment.
For more information about living with and managing iron-deficiency anemia, go to the Health Topics Iron-Deficiency Anemia article.