Iron is a mineral that the body needs to grow and develop. Iron deficiency anemia occurs when the body does not have enough healthy red blood cells due to a lack of iron in the body.

The body uses iron to make important compounds, such as hemoglobin and myoglobin. These are key proteins in red blood cells, which are responsible for carrying oxygen throughout the body in the blood. The body also uses iron to make some hormones.

The body needs about 8 milligrams (mg) of iron per day for adult males, and 18 mg of iron per day for adult menstruating females. After age 51, the requirement for females decreases to 8 mg.

A person with iron deficiency anemia may not get enough iron in their diet. The body may also lose iron through bleeding, pregnancy, or chronic conditions. Some conditions may also keep the body from absorbing iron.

People with mild to moderate iron deficiency anemia may have no signs or symptoms. Symptoms may appear with more severe deficiency and can include fatigue, unhealthy skin and nails, and issues with the heart or respiratory system.

Doctors may use a number of tests to help diagnose iron deficiency anemia, checking for various levels in the blood as well as markers of other underlying factors. Thorough testing can help doctors find the correct underlying cause and provide treatment.

Read on to find out more about iron deficiency anemia.

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Various tests can help diagnose iron deficiency anemia.

Complete blood count

A complete blood count (CBC) test is important for many blood-related issues.

A CBC test gives an overall look at the blood, measuring several important components, such as:

  • red blood cell (RBC) count, which are the cells that carry oxygen
  • white blood cell (WBC) count, which are the cells that fight infection
  • hemoglobin, the proteins in blood cells that carry oxygen
  • hematocrit, the percentage of red blood cells compared to the total blood
  • platelets, which are compounds that help with blood clotting
  • mean corpuscular volume (MCV), which measures the average size of the red blood cells

Depending on the test, doctors may either take a drop of blood to examine or take a vial of blood for analysis.

Depending on how many markers and how many other tests they need, they may take more test vials of blood. A technician will draw vials of blood from the person to send off for testing.

After this, the blood goes to a lab for analysis, and the doctor will schedule another appointment to discuss the findings.

A low RBC count may be a sign of iron deficiency anemia.

A CBC test alone does not generally confirm a diagnosis, but it can help guide doctors on how they should follow up with other tests.

Serum iron test

A serum iron test measures how much iron is in the blood. Low levels of serum iron may indicate iron deficiency.

This is a general test, and doctors may use other tests to get a better understanding of the causes and why low levels appear.

Ferritin test

A ferritin blood test measures the amount of ferritin in the blood. Ferritin is an iron-containing protein in the blood.

Levels of ferritin can help doctors understand how much iron is in the body’s stores. Low ferritin levels indicate low iron stores and iron deficiency.

Total iron binding capacity

Total iron binding capacity (TIBC) is a blood test to check for levels of iron in the blood. Doctors may give this test along with transferrin tests to check for signs of anemia.

If TIBC levels are high, it may indicate low iron in the blood due to iron deficiency anemia. TIBC levels may be low in some other cases of anemia as well, such as anemia due to the destruction of red blood cells.

Soluble transferrin receptor

Iron gets into the cells by binding to a protein called transferrin. Having enough transferrin in the body is important to ensure iron can get into the cells.

When iron levels are low, the body increases the amount of transferrin in the body in an effort to increase the availability of the iron that is there.

High levels of transferrin may be a sign of iron deficiency anemia, and doctors can use a soluble transferrin receptor (sTfR) test to check for these levels.

Peripheral smear

A peripheral smear takes a small amount of blood and examines it under a microscope. A person with iron deficiency anemia will have red blood cells that appear smaller and paler than typical under a microscope.

There are some at-home iron tests to help a person get a general idea about their iron levels, including testing for:

  • iron
  • TIBC
  • ferritin
  • transferrin saturation

It is important to note that these tests are not diagnostic tests. They can provide a general idea about iron levels or help a person understand their symptoms and why they need to go to a doctor for a full diagnosis. Do not use at-home tests instead of going to the doctor.

Blood tests are just one part of the diagnostic process for iron deficiency anemia. Doctors will want to use other tests to help identify and treat underlying causes and factors.

This may include physical exams to look for signs of a disorder. A doctor may check the health of a person’s skin, nails, and hair. They may also check for other symptoms, such as irregular heartbeats or uneven breathing patterns.

Doctors will ask medical questions to help guide their diagnosis. From there, doctors may order tests to check for:

  • causes of internal bleeding
  • Helicobacter pylori infection
  • blood in the stool or urine
  • atypical characteristics in the gastrointestinal tract
  • atypical gynecologic characteristics in females
  • underlying genetic disorders
  • other chronic conditions
  • inflammatory conditions
  • levels of important B vitamins

Treatment for iron deficiency anemia will largely depend on the underlying cause, as well as the severity of symptoms.

Doctors may recommend treating mild deficiencies with changes in diet to include more high-iron foods. They may also recommend iron supplementation to help bring levels higher. In severe cases, doctors may recommend intravenous iron or blood transfusions using iron-rich blood.

Underlying causes of issues leading to anemia will need their own treatment. While diagnosis and treatment may take time, a thorough diagnosis and correct treatment may help avoid complications.

Iron deficiency anemia occurs when the body does not have enough iron. Doctors have a number of tests they may use to help diagnose iron deficiency anemia and its underlying causes.

Finding the underlying cause of the issue may take time in some cases, but it is crucial to find the person the correct treatment.

In some simple cases, increasing iron intake or supplementing the diet with iron may treat anemia. Other cases may require treatment for underlying conditions, in addition to finding ways to increase iron.

Working closely with a doctor in each case will help find the best treatment option.