Increasing the amount of iron a person has in their blood can cure anemia or increase a low red blood cell count.
The body uses iron to make hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is an important part of red blood cells and helps carry oxygen around the body.
If a person does not have enough hemoglobin, they can feel tired, have a rapid heartbeat, and may even have difficulty breathing. An iron infusion may be used for someone with an iron deficiency when supplements do not work.
Who needs an iron infusion?
A diet low in iron may lead to low iron supplies in the blood.
Some people have lower supplies of iron in their blood than others. These groups include:
- Those who have experienced significant blood loss from cancers, ulcers, and heavy periods, for example.
- Those who eat a diet that is very low in iron.
- Those who take medicines that affect the body's ability to use iron to make hemoglobin. These include aspirin, heparin, and Coumadin.
- Those who have a condition that uses up more iron, such as kidney failure or pregnancy.
A doctor can perform a range of blood tests and check a person's iron levels to determine if they are low.
A variety of medical reasons can cause low iron levels, so a doctor will also check someone's blood for the types of iron present, to ensure that it is the lack of iron that is causing the anemia. If so, the condition is known as iron-deficiency anemia.
An iron infusion may be given if a person's blood counts are so low that taking iron supplements or increasing their daily intake of iron-containing foods would be ineffective or too slow in increasing their iron levels.
Some people, such as those with inflammatory bowel disease, cannot take an oral iron supplement and may benefit from an iron infusion.
What to expect
A person will go to a doctor's office, hospital, or another healthcare facility to have an iron infusion.
A healthcare professional will apply a tourniquet to their arm and insert a small needle into a vein. This needle is then replaced with a catheter through which medicines can be given intravenously (IV).
Before a person receives the entire infusion, they will sometimes receive a "test dose." During the test dose, a person will be given small amounts of iron over a 5-minute period. However, newer preparations of iron do not usually require a test dose.
The IV iron is a mixture of iron with a fluid solution. If a person does not have an allergic response or any other unanticipated reactions, a doctor will administer the remaining iron.
The infusion will take between 15-30 minutes if it is given in amounts of 200-300 milligrams (mg).
Most doctors will not recommend giving an individual more than 600 mg of iron in one week. If a person receives too much iron too quickly, they may be at greater risk for adverse side effects from the infusion.
What happens after an iron infusion?
Side effects of an iron infusion may include headaches and joint pain.
An individual can experience some mild side effects for 1-2 days after an iron infusion.
Side effects can include a headache, a metallic taste in the mouth, or joint pain.
However, if a person experiences chest pain, dizziness, mouth swelling, or difficulty breathing in the days following an iron infusion, they should seek immediate medical attention.
A doctor will usually ask someone to return several times to receive additional iron infusions as part of their treatment. The doctor may increase the dosage according to a person's tolerance.
Occasionally, a person will receive only one iron infusion.
Ideally, the symptoms a person experiences due to low iron levels will start to resolve as the amount of iron in the blood increase. This can take several weeks as the iron infusions help to build a person's iron stores back up.
A doctor will regularly check the person's iron levels and blood counts to ensure the iron infusions are working.
Iron infusion vs. injection
An iron infusion may be delivered intravenously.
Doctors can administer iron to someone via an injection or an infusion.
Iron injections are given intramuscularly, usually into the buttocks.
While iron injections may be faster than iron infusions, they can have unpleasant side effects. Examples of these include pain, bleeding into the muscle, and permanent orange discoloration at the injection site.
A person should ask their doctor whether they should make any specific preparations before they have an iron infusion.
Most people do not need to fast or stop taking their medications beforehand, and can also resume their everyday activities after an iron infusion.
If a person is taking regular iron supplements, however, a doctor will usually tell them to stop taking these about a week before the procedure. This is because the supplements may prevent the body from absorbing the iron from the infusion efficiently.
A person will not usually need iron supplements if they are receiving iron infusions.
Risks and benefits
Iron infusions can cause some side effects, including:
- loose bowel movements
Less common side effects include low blood pressure and fainting.
Rarely, a person may experience an anaphylactic reaction after an iron infusion. This is a severe allergic reaction that may cause difficulty breathing, rashes, and severe itching. An anaphylactic reaction needs immediate medical attention.
Iron infusions are not the right treatment for everyone who has low hemoglobin levels. However, for a person with iron deficiency who cannot take or does not respond to iron supplements, iron infusions are one option for increasing their iron levels.
While there are risks associated with iron infusions, newer formulations have helped to reduce side effects.