Iron deficiency signs you might not know about

Woman tiredly reading a book and yawning

Iron is an essential mineral that aids a variety of bodily functions, including the transport of oxygen in the blood. As a pharmacist, I am frequently asked about iron deficiency, from what causes it to whether iron supplements can truly help treat it.

Without enough iron, your levels of haemoglobin (the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen around the body) fall below the normal threshold, making it difficult for your blood to transport oxygen efficiently. This can then lead to iron deficiency symptoms familiar to many of us, such as fatigue and shortness of breath. However, there are additional symptoms that you may be unaware of, and it is important not to ignore them.

Here, I’m outlining the warning signs you may not know about, and sharing simple tips to help you maintain your iron levels.

Who is at risk of an iron deficiency?

Close up of red blood cells

Though anyone can experience iron deficiency, it commonly affects people who menstruate due to blood loss. If you’re pregnant, you’re also at greater risk of low iron levels, and this is routinely monitored so it’s important you attend these appointments.

If you’re losing an unusual amount of blood during your period or otherwise, talk to your GP or pharmacist as soon as you can. There are also certain conditions such as blood disorders and internal bleeding (especially in the stomach and intestine) that can cause your iron levels to drop. Check with a healthcare professional or go to your nearest A&E if you notice any blood in your stools, black tarry stools, blood in your vomit, or severe stomach pains.

As red meat is a key source of iron too, those following a vegetarian or vegan diet may also be at a higher risk of deficiency.

Also read: The best supplements for vegans

Signs you may be dealing with an iron deficiency

How else can you tell if you’re deficient in this essential mineral? Keep an eye out for the following warning signs:

  • Fatigue and extreme weakness
  • Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
  • Shortness of breath
  • Heart palpitations and, in extreme cases, chest pain
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Pale skin
  • Brittle hair and nails
  • Possible hair loss

Iron deficiency can be minor and manageable if treated early. However, becoming anaemic can be harmful if left untreated for an extended period of time. If you notice
any of the above symptoms, make an appointment with your GP for a blood test to rule it out and/or confirm this, as many of these symptoms can be associated with other health problems. The key thing is not to wait it out – so don’t ignore these signs.

Also read: Pregnancy care tips for every trimester

How do you fix low iron levels quickly?

Woman drinking orange juice

It is important to understand the underlying cause of the anaemia. Once this has been found, you may be prescribed, or advised to buy iron supplements – which help target and restore iron levels. Unfortunately, there is no quick fix. It can take up to three months to replenish iron stores and see the full benefit so it’s important to continue to take the full course as directed by your prescriber.

Alongside taking an iron supplement, you can try to incorporate more iron-rich foods into your diet, such as red meats (liver, beef), leafy green vegetables (spinach, kale, watercress), dried fruit (apricots, prunes, raisins), and pulses to up your intake.

For those on vegan and vegetarian diets, eating more iron-rich foods from vegetables and legumes (beans and lentils). You can’t go wrong with things like chickpeas, dried fruits and nuts!

How can iron absorption be improved?

Another thing which many people are unaware of, is that iron can be hard to absorb in the body when taken at the same time as certain food and drinks such as: tea, coffee, milk and eggs.

My top tip? You might have heard of this before and thought it is a myth, but I can confirm it’s true; taking iron supplements with vitamin C-rich foods like orange juice, tomatoes and peppers do help aid iron absorption in the body.

It’s worth mentioning there can sometimes be side effects, such as constipation and sickness, when taking iron supplements – to minimise this, take it with food, increase your fibre intake, and speak to your pharmacist for advice. Another expected and common side effect which is harmless (when taking iron supplements) is dark stools.

Also read: What does vitamin C do?

Ironing it all out

My advice to anyone who is experiencing symptoms or noticing the signs I mentioned? Speak to your local pharmacist – they are highly trained professionals and can assess your symptoms, and once they have ruled out any urgent causes – they may refer you to your GP for a blood test, and once the results are in, we can target treatment from there.

Keep up with the latest health advice from Nature’s Truth here.

Melissa Dadgar

Melissa Dadgar


Melissa Dadgar is a senior clinical pharmacist who is enthusiastic about medicine and health in general. She is passionate about sharing clear and concise information, and she uses her platform to debunk myths and raise awareness about taboo health topics that we all want to know the answers to.