Treating Anemia with Iron Infusions
Anemia is a common blood disorder. Nearly 1 in 4 people worldwide are affected by anemia and more than 3 million people in the United States experience the condition. More than 400 types of anemia exist, so receiving the correct diagnosis and treatment for anemia is important. Treating anemia with iron infusions raises the red blood cell count or hemoglobin levels.
What is anemia?
According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, anemia is the most common blood disorder. It occurs when there is a deficiency of healthy red blood cells in a person’s body because the body does not make enough, destroys too many, or loses too many red blood cells.
Red blood cells contain hemoglobin, an iron-rich protein that attaches to oxygen in the lungs. Hemoglobin enables red blood cells to carry oxygen to the rest of the body. Hemoglobin holds about two-thirds of the body’s iron stores.
If a person’s iron levels are too low, they cannot make red blood cells. When someone does not have enough red blood cells, their body’s cells and tissues do not get all the oxygen they need.
Anemia can also happen with blood loss. When a person loses blood, the body draws water from surrounding tissues to keep the blood vessels full. This dilutes the blood and reduces the red blood count.
Symptoms of anemia
Anemia presents a range of symptoms, such as:
- Fatigue or lack of energy,
- Paleness or yellowish skin,
- Dizziness or lightheadedness,
- Cold hands and feet,
- Increased thirst,
- Lower leg cramps,
- Bone pain, and
- Heart problems, including irregular rhythms, murmurs, an enlarged heart or heart failure.
People with anemia may experience cold temperatures more significantly than other people as well.
Please note, all of these symptoms do not affect every form of anemia.
People often dismiss many of these symptoms without realizing they have anemia.
Anemia is diagnosed through a simple blood test. The doctor will check for the percentage of red blood cells in the blood, the size and coloring of the red blood cells, hemoglobin levels, as well as for levels of proteins that store iron.
Who is affected by this condition?
Anemia can affect anyone, but commonly presents in people with:
- Chronic medical conditions,
- Autoimmune disorders,
- Cancers that destroy red blood cells,
- Gastric bypass surgery,
- Poor diets,
- Difficulty absorbing iron,
- Significant blood loss,
- Faulty red blood cell production,
- And pregnant or menstruating women.
Anemia may result as a side effect of medicine or as the result of another health condition. Other conditions that could increase your likelihood of developing anemia include family history, lifestyle and aging.
Anemia often affects people over the age of 65, those suffering from intestinal disorders and those who drink excessively. People with cold agglutinin disease (CAD) or lymphoma are also at higher risk due to their low red blood cell count.
Types of anemia
With 400 types of anemia, the severity of the disease and symptoms can vary from mild to severe. With the right care or medication, anemia is not life-threatening.
If left untreated, anemia can increase the risk of heart problems, pregnancy complications and infections. It can also complicate or worsen other health conditions.
Types of anemia include iron deficiency anemia, aplastic anemia, sickle cell anemia, thalassemia and vitamin deficiency anemia.
The most common type: iron deficiency anemia
Iron deficiency anemia is the most common type. It occurs when there is not enough iron in the body or when the body absorbs iron poorly.
People at risk for iron deficiency anemia include children, adolescents and women of childbearing age. The condition also often occurs in individuals with gastrointestinal issues, such as Crohn’s disease or celiac disease. Gastric bypass surgery and a poor diet can also increase one’s risk of developing anemia.
Iron deficiency anemia treatments seek to raise the red blood cell count or hemoglobin levels, treat the underlying cause of the anemia, prevent complications and improve quality of life.
Following a diagnosis of iron deficiency anemia, there are a variety of treatment options. Managing lifestyle factors by eating more iron-rich foods and cutting back on alcohol can help. However, these approaches may take a long time and may not be enough for some people. In such cases, doctors may prescribe oral medication or intravenous (IV) iron infusions for treating anemia.
Iron infusions by IV
Obtaining iron through IV iron infusions is not as common as taking oral supplements. However, if there are absorption issues or if getting iron levels up quickly matters, iron infusions may be the best choice.
People absorb iron more quickly through IV iron infusions than through oral supplements. Medical studies have found that IV iron infusions are often more effective and easier to tolerate than oral iron supplements. Major reactions to iron infusions are rare.
When determining which iron therapy is best for you – oral or IV – consider the following factors:
Age – Intravenous iron infusions are more commonly used in adults – particularly in adults with ongoing bleeding or who have had gastric bypass surgery. Gastric bypass surgery often makes it more difficult to absorb iron. Most children and infants are traditionally treated with oral iron supplements, except in rare situations where children are unable to absorb oral iron due to gastrointestinal issues.
Cost – Oral iron is less expensive, readily available over the counter and may be the best choice for some people with anemia. Iron infusions must be administered in a certified infusion center or hospital. This makes iron infusions more costly, but the benefits of iron absorption may make it the best choice.
Absorption – Many people cannot absorb iron that they ingest orally, so receiving iron infusions through an IV is the best, and sometimes the only, option. This could be due to celiac disease, gastric bypass surgery, inflammatory bowel disease or following a Whipple procedure.
Side Effects – While oral iron costs less than IV iron infusions, nearly 70% of people taking oral iron suffer from gastrointestinal side effects like nausea, constipation, stomach pain and vomiting. Liquid oral iron has a metallic taste and can stain teeth. Some patients balk at taking oral iron supplements because of their uncomfortable side effects.
IV iron infusions usually have minimal side effects. Major reactions are rare. Some people may experience swelling, dizziness, gastrointestinal pain, constipation, headache, muscle aches, chest pain or low blood pressure.
Length of Treatment – Oral iron therapy can take months to counteract anemia entirely and even longer to restore iron in the body to normal levels.
Today’s iron infusions work very well and can restore iron levels within one or two doses. It can take up to two months of iron infusions to fix iron deficiency anemia. Normally, it takes just several days to a week for people to feel better following an iron infusion.
Frequency of Blood Loss – People with iron deficiency anemia due to ongoing blood loss often require regular infusions of iron to maintain the iron levels their bodies need.
What happens during an iron infusion?
An iron infusion usually occurs at a certified infusion center or hospital. The doctor performing your iron infusion will first administer a test dose to ensure there are no adverse reactions.
A healthcare professional will insert a needle into a vein in your hand or arm. A small tube called a catheter will be connected to the needle. The tube will be attached to an IV bag filled with iron. The doctor or nurse will then remove the needle and allow the medication to flow through the tube using gravity or a pump.
Iron infusions do not hurt, although you may feel a slight pinch when the IV needle is inserted or light pressure at the insertion site during the infusion.
Where to get iron infusions in the Triangle
Personalized Hematology/Oncology of Wake Forest is a certified infusion center serving Raleigh and the surrounding area. Our board-certified hematologist treats many blood disorders, including iron deficiency anemia, using infusions. Our facility offers a comfortable setting where infusions are administered.
We know infusion therapy can seem scary at first, so we are here to make you as comfortable as possible. To learn more about our practice or to make an appointment, please contact us today.