Iron deficiency anemia is common, but that doesn’t make the symptoms any easier to deal with on a day-to-day basis. Anemia causes such symptoms as fatigue, dizziness and chest pains, so it’s easy to mistake it for other problems. Maybe you think you’re not sleeping enough, or you have heartburn, or worse, you think you might have an impending heart problem. In some cases, the answer is as simple as eating more iron-containing food or taking iron supplements to alleviate the symptoms.
Anemia symptoms and their impact on everyday life
Anemia mimics a number of other conditions, including chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) and cardiovascular diseases. For me, it causes persistent tiredness, a chalky complexion when it’s at its worst, icy cold hands and feet, dizziness, chest pain and mild confusion. Most disconcerting are occasional instances of arrhythmia – I’m told that this is relatively normal, but it can be scary when your heart suddenly switches gears without warning. All symptoms get worse when I try to do physical tasks, particularly jogging or gardening.
While some of the symptoms are easy enough to ignore, they do slow down some of the activities I’d like to do. I’m a generally active person and often push the limits of my physical abilities, but can barely walk a half-mile (a very short distance for me) on bad days. I’ve never had good enough hemoglobin levels to donate blood, and even a relatively mild nosebleed can trigger some of the more unpleasant symptoms.
The ongoing adventure of anemia diagnoses
My first official anemia diagnosis came when I was 14 years old, as part of other tests associated with admission to an inpatient facility. At that time, my hemoglobin levels sat at 11.2g/dL and hematocrit was around 30%. The nurse explained the results to me, and told me how important it was to eat iron-rich foods. At 5’6″ and 128 pounds, I struck her as someone who may have a number of nutrition deficiencies from simply not eating enough of anything.
Fast-forward 5 years. I’m eating well and am still physically active, but 7 weeks pregnant. They test hemoglobin again – yep, still anemic, and now testing at 10.5g/dL. The nurse practitioner at the pregnancy center informs me that my prenatal vitamin should take care of it, but I can take an additional supplement if I think I need to.
After the birth of all three of my babies, hemoglobin levels dropped off a cliff. My skin turned gray and my lips looked like they’d been smeared with porcelain-colored foundation. During one test, my hemoglobin levels read 8.2g/dL. The nurse said that anything under 12 is low, but they have to re-test if it’s under 10. The second reading said 6.4g/dL. Suddenly, the conversation turned to, “How exactly did you walk in here? Do you have someone to drive you home?”
Since then, my hemoglobin levels are tested at least once a year, and often more. Every test has been under 10g/dL, and some significantly under. My doctor now assumes that I’ll still be anemic at every test, and it’s still always significantly below desired levels.
Experiments in anemia management
In most cases, chronic anemia is met with thorough testing from doctors to determine the underlying cause. Mine would have been too, except those tests are expensive and time-consuming, and are plain out of my reach for now – nearly 15 years after the initial diagnosis. I take my iron supplements, and constantly eat iron-rich fresh produce. My meat is often cooked in cast iron, and usually consists of wild venison or farmed bison. Hemoglobin levels saw a small jump when I got a Mirena IUD, which slows menstrual bleeding to almost nothing. The anemia symptoms persist despite all of this, but each management tactic does seem to help improve hemoglobin and hematocrit levels to some degree.
Remember that only a doctor can diagnose anemia, and the treatments vary widely by the type of anemia and underlying cause. Don’t just assume that your symptoms are caused by anemia, or that anemia is nothing to worry about. Have it checked out – the underlying issue can just be a temporary blood problem, or it could be something as dire as leukemia or under-functioning bone marrow. When in doubt, discuss your symptoms and concerns with your primary care doctor.