We all know that our periods can ebb and flow (no pun intended). But if your periods seem to go on forever or are abnormally heavy, you may be one of the one in five women of childbearing age who have iron deficiency anemia (IDA). If you’re not familiar, IDA is a common type of anemia that occurs when your body does not have enough iron, the mineral that helps blood carry oxygen.
There are a number of different reasons IDA might develop but excessive blood loss during menstruation and high iron demands during pregnancy are two biggies, according to the National Institute of Health.
So, how do you know if you have IDA?
Even though IDA isn’t a rare condition, you may not know that you have it. In fact, a recent survey of 1,000 women ages 18 to 65 found that 42 percent couldn’t identify any of the common IDA risk factors.
The symptoms associated with IDA (aside from heavy periods) depend on its severity, says Arizona-based ob-gyn Stephanie Martin, MD. While mild to moderate IDA may have no signs or symptoms, as it progresses, IDA may cause fatigue, the most common symptom of all types of anemias. Shortness of breath, chest pain, headaches, dizziness, or brittle nails are also common. Less common symptoms include cravings for ice (yes, seriously!), irregular heartbeat (which can lead to serious health issues like sudden cardiac arrest and atrial fibrillation), yellow or pale skin, and cold hands or feet, Dr. Martin says.
The fact that you can have IDA and not know it is exactly why it’s important to talk to your doctor about your heavy periods and get tested for the condition.
“A blood test is the only way to know for sure if you have IDA,” Dr. Martin says. Your doctor will want to know how well your blood is transporting iron and will assess this by doing specialized blood tests as well as doing a complete blood count (CBC).
According to Dr. Martin, if your doctor finds that your heavy periods are causing IDA, intravenous (IV) or oral iron supplements might be recommended. “Oral iron supplements are the first recommended treatment option to restore iron and, for many people with IDA, oral iron may be enough,” Dr. Martin explains.
For some, oral iron may lead to hard-to-tolerate side effects such as nausea, stomach pain, and gastrointestinal problems that can further decrease the amount of iron you absorb, Dr. Martin says. These people may need to try IV iron therapy. While this may also have side effects, such as infusion site reactions and low or high blood pressure, it will not exacerbate IDA.
Ultimately, if you’re diagnosed with IDA, you’ll want to be in regular contact with your doctor to ensure that your iron levels stay where they need to be. IDA is serious and, if left untreated, can lead to a rapid or irregular heartbeat, Dr. Martin says.
“Patients should speak with their healthcare provider about how to manage their iron levels,” Dr. Martin says. “Increasing a patient’s iron levels to a sufficient level can take time and remember this: Not all iron treatments are the same so it’s important to speak with your healthcare provider about which treatment option is right for you.”
For easy-to-understand information and resources about IDA, including a discussion guide with questions to help start the conversation with your doctor, visit GetIronInformed.com.
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