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What Causes Iron Deficiency in Pregnancy?

By Clara Kedrek
Updated May 17, 2024
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Iron deficiency in pregnancy is common, and most often develops due to the needs of the developing fetus. Blood loss, gastrointestinal disease, and poor nutrition can also contribute to the development of this condition during pregnancy. Symptoms of iron deficiency arise due to low red blood cell counts, and can include lethargy and tiredness. Fortunately, this condition is easily treated, and can even be prevented in most women.

The reason why many women develop iron deficiency in pregnancy is that their iron stores are used up in nurturing the developing fetus. Iron is used in red blood cells, and is stored in the plasma, liver, spleen, and bone marrow. If a woman’s iron is depleted by the developing fetus, she might not have enough to use in her own red blood cells. This can cause a condition called anemia, which is the medical term used to describe having a low red blood cell count.

Other reasons for iron deficiency in pregnancy could be due to underlying disease. For example, bleeding is a common cause of iron deficiency. A pregnant woman who experiences a lot of bleeding could become iron deficient. Gastrointestinal disease causing poor absorption of iron, as well as low dietary intake of iron, can also contribute to low iron levels in the body.

Symptoms of iron deficiency in pregnancy can include excessive tiredness, irritability, lethargy, and headache. These symptoms develop because having a low red blood cell count reduces the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood. Without enough oxygen, various parts of the body cannot function properly, and symptoms develop. Another manifestation of iron deficiency is called “pica.” This word is used to describe a craving for non-food substances such as clay or dirt, and some scientists believe that pica represents a last-ditch effort for patients obtain iron.

The treatment of iron deficiency in pregnancy begins with oral iron supplementation. Taking these pills can rebuild stores of iron in the body, and eventually can increase red blood cell counts. If women have severe symptoms of anemia, they might require blood transfusions as a short-term treatment. These women will be also be placed on iron supplements to refill the body’s stores.

In many cases, iron deficiency in pregnancy can be prevented. Many women begin taking prenatal vitamins that include iron as soon as they learn they are pregnant. Often, doctors also check patients’ red blood cell counts at their first prenatal visit, and prescribe extra iron supplementation if anemia is found. In addition, women can prevent iron deficiency by spacing out their pregnancies. Having a few years between births gives the woman time to build up her iron stores in preparation for a new baby.

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