More than 3 million people in the U.S. are living with anemia. Anemia is a common blood disorder that develops when your red blood cell count is low or when your red blood cells don’t have enough hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is a protein in red blood cells that’s responsible for transporting oxygen from the lungs to other parts of the body. Since your organs and tissues all need oxygen to function correctly, being anemic can cause widespread symptoms.
Women and people with chronic diseases are at the greatest risk for anemia, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, but it can affect anyone. There are a number of causes of anemia ranging from genetic causes such as [the blood disorder] thalassemia, to vitamin and mineral deficiencies, to simply anemia from bleeding [too much].Other diseases and inherited conditions that affect red blood cell count, like sickle cell disease, can also make someone anemic.
The most common cause, though, especially in women, is a deficiency in iron. Iron-deficiency anemia can be caused by blood loss from things like heavy periods or childbirth, severe injury, surgery, and ulcers. You can also become iron deficient from simply not eating enough of it—it’s very common in pregnant women because they have to eat enough iron for two. Some people may also eat enough iron but have trouble absorbing it, due to gastrointestinal disorders like Crohn’s disease.
You may have no symptoms at first, or they may be very mild. As iron-deficiency anemia gets worse, some telltale signs can pop up. Here are the most common ones you might notice.
1. You’re exhausted and weak.
The first and most common symptom of iron-deficiency anemia is fatigue. Without enough oxygen being delivered to your body, you can’t break down nutrients and make energy.
2. You have strange cravings for things that aren’t food.
People who are anemic may develop a syndrome called pica, which causes strange cravings to eat items that aren’t food.
3. You get headaches or feel dizzy.
Headaches, dizziness, and feeling lightheaded can all be symptoms of anemia.
4. Your heartbeat is irregular.
Heart palpitations, an irregular heartbeat, or an increased heart rate can develop as your body attempts to compensate for its lack of energy.
5. You’re short of breath.
When your organs aren’t getting enough oxygen, your lungs may start to overcompensate and work harder to bring more oxygen in. If walking up the stairs leaves you winded, or you can barely catch your breath during a workout (and you’ve never really had a problem before) your iron levels may be to blame.
6. You have chest pain.
Your heart needs oxygen to function, so without enough hemoglobin and oxygen, the heart tissue will behave just as though you are having impaired blood flow.
7. Your legs are tingling.
You may have a strong and unpleasant urge to move your legs. This can also make it hard to fall asleep at night. Supplementing with iron has been shown to help this sensation go away.
8. Your skin is pale.
When your vital organs (read: heart and brain) aren’t getting enough oxygen, the body funnels more blood their way, depriving other parts—like your skin—in the process. With less blood flowing to your skin, you’re likely to lose some of your color.
9. Your nails are brittle.
Nail cells, like every other living cell in your body, need oxygen to breathe and grow. Without it, the nail beds stop making healthy new cells, leading to weak and brittle nails over time.
10. Your hands and feet are always cold.
Your extremities also fall under the category of “non-essential body parts,” and blood flow may become limited when you’re anemic.