Is it Fatigue or Do I Have Anemia?

Low iron can cause fatigue. Here's what to do if you think your tiredness is the result of iron-deficiency anemia.

Medically reviewed in December 2020

Updated on March 1, 2021

Many people experience fatigue at some point, that profound physical and mental exhaustion that leaves you weary, sleepy, unmotivated and lacking stamina for normal activities. Fatigue can be acute (short-term) or chronic (long-term) and has many causes, including being overworked, being stressed, sleeping too little and having a poor diet. 

Fatigue can also be a symptom of a more serious health conditions, including anemia. 

What is anemia? 
Anemia is a condition that occurs when your blood has too few red blood cells or too little hemoglobin; hemoglobin is an iron-rich substance that carries oxygen throughout the body and removes the carbon dioxide produced in energy metabolism.  

There are numerous types of anemia, each with different causes and symptoms. The most common form of anemia is iron-deficiency anemia, which occurs when there is too little iron in the body. Iron is the component of red blood cells that oxygen binds to in order to be transported from the lungs throughout the body. When there is too little iron, not enough oxygen can reach the cells and tissues that require it for energy production. This is why low iron can cause fatigue. 

In addition to fatigue, symptoms of iron-deficiency anemia can include dizziness, shortness of breath, pale skin, coldness in the hands and feet, headaches and chest pain. 

Blood loss is the most common cause of iron deficiency anemia; blood loss can be the result of heavy menstrual periods, gastrointestinal bleeding, cancer, surgery or trauma. Iron-deficiency anemia may also be caused by diseases such as Crohn’s disease or celiac disease, which prevent your body from absorbing iron and other nutrients. Iron-deficiency anemia can be caused by nutritional deficiency—not getting enough iron in your diet—as well. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency worldwide. 

Do I have anemia?  
Self-diagnosis and self-treatment are not an effective method for dealing with fatigue; the only way to accurately identify the cause of fatigue is to make an appointment with your healthcare provider. 

Your appointment should include a physical examination and blood work, which will help your healthcare provider determine whether fatigue is a result of iron deficiency or another cause. Fatigue can be a symptom of many conditions and illnesses, including heart disease, depression, thyroid issues and diabetes. 

If your blood work shows that your iron levels are low, your healthcare provider will likely investigate to find the cause of your anemia, and if the cause is due to iron deficiency, will then prescribe a treatment plan that may include changes in diet as well as iron supplements. Do not take iron supplements without the guidance of a healthcare provider, as too much iron can be harmful. 

Bottom line, if you are experiencing fatigue and very low levels of energy, make an appointment with your healthcare provider.

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