Iron deficiencies are often associated with toddlers and pregnant people. But a pediatrician in Michigan had a hunch that it’s also prevalent in teenaged girls — kiddos who have just started menstruating and who might not be eating a balanced diet for a variety of reasons. When she decided to study it, she found that she was right: up to 40% of girls between the ages of 12 and 21 are iron deficient or all-out anemic.
Before her work, estimates were at about only 19%.
Pediatric hematologist Angela Weyand, who is at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor, analyzed data from thousands of teen girls using the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Her results, which were published in JAMA in June, are a wake-up call to parents who might have teenagers who need diet changes or supplements.
In the study, Weyand looked at blood samples from 3,500 female adolescents from 2003 to 2020, studying both their levels of hemoglobin and ferritin, two proteins in the blood that contain iron. She found that almost half of girls were deficient in the vitamin, while 6% met the requirements for anemia.
Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) only recommend an iron screening every five to 10 years for adolescent girls, which means that many with even serious iron deficiencies can fly under the radar for long spans of time.
What health problems can be caused by iron deficiency?
Iron is required for red blood cells to carry oxygen throughout your body. It makes sense, then, that a lack of this mineral can lead to serious health problems.
Iron deficiency can cause fatigue, tiredness, shortness of breath, dizziness, headaches, or even a racing heart. It can also make it difficult to concentrate and complete tasks — and has been associated with sleep disturbances like restless leg syndrome.
It can also cause pale skin as well as cold hands and feet.
Severe anemia can harm major organs like the heart and lungs. It can also lead to pregnancy complications.
Why are so many teen girls iron deficient?
Anemia can be caused by blood loss, such as during menstruation. Some people lack iron, though, because their bodies have health conditions that make absorbing iron difficult.
The study found that low-income and food-insecure girls — who may not be getting enough to eat or enough quality food to eat — were more likely to be anemic than others. Black and Hispanic girls were also at higher risk for iron deficiency. So were girls who were underweight.
What parents can do about preventing iron deficiency
Parents can talk to their doctors about getting their kid tested for an iron deficiency if they suspect it. Weyand believes symptoms are often brushed off as side effects of menstruation. At the same time, the concerns of kids — especially female kids — can be overlooked by doctors, who may not be aware that iron deficiency is a common problem in adolescent girls.
“Iron deficiency isn’t necessarily what [primary care providers] are thinking of first,” Weyand told Science News. “I’ve seen patients who are really iron deficient and feeling horrible, and we corrected their iron deficiency and their lives really changed.”
How is iron deficiency in girls treated?
Iron deficiency can be treated with an oral supplement, though according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, it can take three to six months to correct your levels.
Kids can also eat iron-rich foods, such as beans, fruit, eggs, red meat, salmon, and green leafy vegetables. Picky kids can eat iron-fortified cereal.
If you suspect your kid might have an iron deficiency, talk to your pediatrician.