Iron deficiency

Iron is a mineral nutrient that is essential for your body to function normally and to make haemoglobin (Hb). The treatment of iron deficiency is iron replacement therapy. Transfusion is rarely required.

What is haemoglobin?

Haemoglobin (Hb) is a protein that can be found in red blood cells and its primary function is to transport oxygen to the tissues in your body. All tissues require oxygen to survive. Iron gives haemoglobin and therefore blood cells their red colour. We absorb iron by eating foods that contain iron.


What is the difference between iron and haemoglobin?

It is a common misconception that iron and haemoglobin are the same thing. This is incorrect. Iron is a component of haemoglobin and is also found in other parts of the body. It is possible to have a normal haemoglobin level but be lacking in iron. Iron is essential for your body to function normally and to make haemoglobin.

What can happen if I have low iron levels?

A low iron level is called iron deficiency. This may cause tiredness. If your iron deficiency is severe, your haemoglobin level can drop. This is called iron deficiency anaemia.

What are the symptoms of iron deficiency anaemia?

Symptoms include:

  • tiredness
  • feeling faint
  • pale skin
  • becoming breathless more easily.

What can cause my iron levels to be low?

Low iron levels and anaemia can be caused by:

  • bleeding
  • diet low in iron
  • poor iron absorption from the gut
  • heavy menstruation
  • bleeding from the gut (which may not be obvious)
  • multiple blood donations.

What should I do if I have any of these symptoms?

You should always see your doctor if you have any symptoms. Your doctor will assess your symptoms, investigate accordingly and advise whether if iron supplementation is a good option for you. Finding out and treating the cause of iron deficiency is very important. This will ensure serious problems are ruled out and you receive the right treatment.

If your iron levels are low (iron deficiency) you may need iron replacement therapy. If you need iron supplementation, make sure you take the one recommended - many tablets, including multivitamins, do not contain enough iron to treat iron deficiency. Please also be aware of the following:


  •  Iron tablets, like all medicines should be kept in a locked cupboard out of reach and sight of children.
  •  A small amount of iron can be poisonous, even fatal in infants and young children.
  •  Never give an adult dose to a child.
  •  If a child accidentally takes iron tablets call the Poisons Information Centre immediately on 131126.


Occasionally you may need to have your iron levels increased quickly, for example if you are about to have surgery or a baby. In this case your doctor may recommend an infusion of iron into the vein (intravenous iron). Intravenous iron is also used if you can’t absorb the iron from tablets or they cause side effects.

Iron and nutrition

Iron in food

If you are low in iron, diet alone will not be enough to boost your levels. However it’s still a good idea to make sure you are eating a diet rich in iron. This can help you maintain your levels once they are back to normal.

What’s the best food for iron?

There are two types of iron in food – 'haem iron' which is found in meat and 'non-haem iron' which is found in plants. Haem iron is absorbed much more readily than non-haem iron. Meat also contains a lot more iron than plants, however a well-balanced vegetarian diet can still provide sufficient iron.

What’s the best way to eat iron rich foods?

Iron absorption can be increased or decreased by certain other foods, drinks and medications.

Red meat contains a lot of iron. Vitamin C increases the absorption of iron. Good sources of vitamin C include fruits and leafy green vegetables. These are at their iron-richest when raw, lightly cooked or steamed.

Foods and drinks that reduce the amount of iron absorbed include chocolate, unprocessed bran, tea, coffee, red wine and cola drinks. Antacids can also reduce iron absorption, as can other medications.


  • Mix lean beef and leafy green vegetables in your stir fry.
  • Add a glass of orange juice or some vitamin-C rich fruit to your breakfast cereal.
  • Drink tea and coffee between meals, not with meals.