Iron is a mineral that the human body uses to produce the red blood cells (hemoglobin) that carry oxygen throughout the body. It is also stored in myoglobin, an oxygen-carrying protein in the muscles that fuels cell growth.
Iron is abundant in red meats, vegetables, and other foods, and a well-balanced diet can usually provide an adequate supply of the mineral. But when there is insufficient iron from dietary sources, or as a result of blood loss in the body, the amount of hemoglobin in the bloodstream is reduced and oxygen cannot be efficiently transported to tissues and organs throughout the body. The resulting condition is known as iron-deficiency anemia, and is characterized by fatigue, shortness of breath, pale skin, concentration problems, dizziness, a weakened immune system, and energy loss.
Children two years old and under also need adequate iron in their diets to promote proper mental and physical development. Children under two who are not breastfed should eat iron-fortified formulas and cereals. Women who breastfeed need at least 15 mg of dietary or supplementary iron a day in order to pass along adequate amounts of the mineral to their child in breast milk. Parents should consult a pediatrician or other healthcare professional for guidance on iron supplementation in children.
It has been theorized that excess stored iron can lead to atherosclerosis and ischemic heart disease. Phlebotomy, or blood removal, has been used to reduce stored iron in patients with iron overload with some success. Iron chelation with drugs such as desferrioxamine (Desferal) that help patients excrete excess stores of iron can be helpful in treating iron overload caused by multiple blood transfusions.
Iron levels in the body are measured by both hemoglobin and serum ferritin blood tests.
Normal total hemoglobin levels are:
neonates: 17-22 g/dl
one week: 15-20 g/dl
one month: 11-15 g/dl
children: 11-13 g/dl
adult males: 14-18 g/dl (12.4-14.9 g/dl after age 50)
adult females: 12-16 g/dl (11.7-13.8 g/dl after menopause)