Iron deficiency anemia refers to anemia that is caused by lower than normal levels of iron. This type of anemia is caused by deficient erythropoiesis, the ongoing process of the bone marrow to produce healthy red blood cells (RBCs). It is characterized by the production of small (microcytic) RBCs. When examined under a microscope, the RBCs also appear pale or light colored from the absence of heme, the major component of hemoglobin, which is the iron-bearing protein and coloring pigment in RBCs. Anemia resulting from a deficiency of iron is also called microcytic anemia.
Anemia is a blood disorder characterized by abnormally low levels of healthy RBCs or reduced levels of hemoglobin (Hgb), the iron-bearing protein in RBCs that delivers oxygen to tissues throughout the body. Blood cell volume (hematocrit) may also be reduced in some anemias, but not necessarily in iron deficiency anemia. The reduction of any or all of these blood parameters reduces the essential delivery of oxygen through the bloodstream to the organs of the body. Iron is a mineral found in the bloodstream that is essential for growth, enzyme development and function, a healthy immune system, energy levels, and muscle strength. It is an important component of hemoglobin and myoglobin, the type of hemoglobin in muscle tissue.
Iron deficiency anemia is the most common type of anemia throughout the world, although it occurs to a lesser extent in the United States because of the higher consumption of iron-rich red meat and the practice of food fortification (addition of iron to foods by manufacturers). In developing countries in tropical climates, the most common cause of iron deficiency anemia is infestation with hookworm.
The onset of iron deficiency anemia is gradual and may not have early symptoms. The deficiency begins when the body's store of iron is depleted and more iron is being lost through bleeding or malabsorption than is derived from food and other sources. Because depleted iron stores cannot meet the red blood cells' needs, fewer red blood cells develop. In this early stage of anemia, the red blood cells look normal, but they are reduced in number. Eventually the body tries to compensate for the iron deficiency by producing more red blood cells, which are characteristically small in size (spherocytosis). Symptoms of anemia, especially weakness and fatigue, develop at this stage.