What Are the Symptoms of Low Iron Levels?

It’s natural to feel under the weather now and again, but as our lives get busier and more fast-paced, it can sometimes be easy to miss the important signs and symptoms you have when your body is trying to tell you something isn’t quite right.

Your body is brilliant and is constantly sending signals to you about what’s going on inside. Some nutrient deficiencies can become apparent with these signs, and it’s beneficial to be able to recognise them.

While people generally get enough of the vitamins and minerals they need, there can be some nutrients they can lack—one of these nutrients being iron. Iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency across the globe – it’s estimated that 30% of the world’s population is anaemic primarily due to iron deficiency.

An important dietary mineral, iron is needed for various bodily functions, including the transport of oxygen in your blood, which is essential in providing energy for daily life. If you don’t have enough iron in your diet, the iron stores within your body become depleted. This can make you feel tired and lower your immunity, leading to anaemia.

The signs and symptoms of iron deficiency can vary depending on the severity, your age and current state of health – in some cases; people experience no symptoms at all. Most people don’t realise they have mild anaemia until they have a routine blood test.

Not sure whether you need to book a test? Here are some of the signs and symptoms of iron deficiency you should be looking out for:

  • Extreme fatigue and tiredness
    • Your sleep hygiene is good, and you regularly take breaks, so why do you always feel tired and find it hard to concentrate? Feeling tired is one of the most common symptoms of iron deficiency, affecting more than half of those who are deficient.

      The feeling of fatigue you experience means your body is having trouble carrying the oxygen to your cells, so it’s affecting your energy levels. Since tiredness is often considered a normal part of a busy, modern life, it’s often difficult to diagnose iron deficiency with this symptom alone.

  • Dark circles
    • Dark circles under your eyes are common and are most often due to lack of sleep, but in some cases, they could suggest other health issues. Iron deficiency can prevent your blood from carrying sufficient oxygen to your eye tissues.

  • Shortness of breath
    • Shortness of breath is another common symptom. As haemoglobin enables your red blood cells to carry oxygen around the body, when it’s low due to iron deficiency, oxygen levels will also below. This means your muscles won’t get enough oxygen to do normal activities, such as walking.

      As a result, your breathing rate will increase as your body tries to get more oxygen. If you notice yourself getting out of breath doing things that you’d normally handle just fine, for example climbing a flight of stairs, iron deficiency could be the cause.

  • Hair loss
    • Are you losing excess hair? It’s normal to lose about 100 strands of hair per day, but if you notice your hair loss is excessive and is not growing back, this may be a sign of iron deficiency.

      Iron deficiency, especially when it develops into anaemia, can cause hair loss as hair follicles don’t get enough oxygen, they go into a resting stage, and hair falls out. It doesn’t grow back until anaemia is improved.

  • Pale skin 
    • Has your skin lost its healthy glow? Haemoglobin gives skin its rosy colour, so low levels cause the skin to become lighter.

      This may be easier to detect in people with lighter complexions, but no matter what your skin tone, if the area inside your bottom eyelid is lighter than normal, this may be a sign of iron deficiency. This is often one of the first things a doctor will look for as a sign of low iron levels.

  • Unusual cravings for non-nutritive substances
    • This might sound like a strange symptom, but pica, craving (and eating) non-food substances such as ice, dirt, or starch can be a sign of iron deficiency.

      Iron-deficient people may be tempted to nibble on chalk, clay, dirt, and paper.

  • A tingling or crawling feeling in the legs
    • Can’t stop fidgeting? About 15% of people with restless leg syndrome have iron deficiency, according to John Hopkins Medicine. The lower the iron levels, the worse the symptoms.

  • Headache, dizziness or lightheadedness
    • There are lots of possible causes for headaches, but frequent, recurring headaches and dizziness could be a sign of iron deficiency. This symptom seems to be less common than others and will often be experienced with lightheadedness or dizziness.

      An iron-deficient body will prioritise getting oxygen to your brain before it worries about other tissues. However, even then, your head will still get less than it ideally should, in response, the brain’s arteries can swell, causing headaches.

  • Cold hands and feet
    • Ever noticed how some people always have cold hands? Often, this is simply a side effect of your body’s internal temperature regulation and not any reason to be concerned. Some people just feel the cold more easily in general or have cold hands and feet.

      But chronically cold hands could be a sign of something more serious as Iron deficiency causes less oxygen being delivered to the hands and feet.

  • Fast or irregular heartbeat - feeling anxious
    • Noticeable heartbeats, also known as heart palpitations, can be another symptom of iron-deficiency anaemia.

      Haemoglobin is the protein in red blood cells that helps transport oxygen around the body. In iron deficiency, low levels of haemoglobin mean the heart has to work extra hard to carry oxygen.

      The lack of oxygen available to body tissues in iron deficiency may also cause feelings of anxiety. However, this tends to improve or resolve as iron levels are corrected.

  • Swelling and soreness of the tongue and mouth
    • According to Healthline, just looking inside or around your mouth can give you an indication of whether you are suffering from iron-deficiency anaemia.

      Signs can include a swollen, inflamed, pale or strangely smooth tongue. Low haemoglobin in iron deficiency can cause the tongue to become pale, while lower levels of myoglobin can cause it to become sore, smooth and swollen. Besides sapping the colour out of your tongue, low iron counts can reduce levels of myoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that supports muscle health, like the muscle that makes up the tongue. As a result, many people who are iron deficient complain of a sore, inflamed, and strangely smooth tongue.

      Iron deficiency can also cause dry mouth, sore red cracks at the corners of the mouth or mouth ulcers.

  • Brittle nails
    • Chipped and broken nails can be annoying, but they might also be a sign of deficiency. A much less common symptom of iron deficiency is brittle or spoon-shaped fingernails, a condition called koilonychia.

      This often starts with brittle nails that chip and crack easily. In later stages of iron deficiency, spoon-shaped nails can occur where the middle of the nail dips and the edges are raised to give a rounded appearance like a spoon. This, however, is a much rarer side effect and usually only seen in severe cases of iron-deficiency anaemia.

It’s always best to get a blood test to confirm your iron levels. You know your body best, so if something doesn’t seem right, get it checked out.