If you're pregnant, you're at an increased risk of iron deficiency anemia, a condition in which you don't have enough healthy red blood cells to carry adequate oxygen to your tissues.

Understand why anemia during pregnancy occurs and what you can do about it.

What causes anemia during pregnancy?

Your body uses iron to make hemoglobin, a protein in the red blood cells that carries oxygen to your tissues. During pregnancy, your blood volume expands to accommodate changes in your body and help your baby make his or her entire blood supply - doubling your need for iron. If you don't have enough iron stores or get enough iron during pregnancy, you could develop iron deficiency anemia.

How does anemia during pregnancy affect the baby?

Iron deficiency anemia during pregnancy might increase the risk of a preterm delivery or a low birth weight baby.

What are the risk factors for anemia during pregnancy?

You are at increased risk of developing anemia during pregnancy if you:

  • Have two or more closely spaced pregnancies
  • Are pregnant with more than one baby
  • Are vomiting frequently due to morning sickness
  • Don't consume enough iron
  • Have a heavy pre-pregnancy menstrual flow
What are the symptoms of anemia during pregnancy?

If you have a mild case of iron deficiency anemia, you might not notice any symptoms. However, if you have a moderate or severe case, you might:

  • Be excessively tired and weak
  • Become increasingly pale
  • Have heart palpitations
  • Be short of breath
  • Feel dizzy or lightheaded
  • Have cravings to eat nonfood items (pica), such as clay or cornstarch

Keep in mind that some anemia symptoms can be similar to general pregnancy symptoms.

Regardless of whether or not you have symptoms, you'll have a blood test to screen for anemia during your first prenatal visit and usually once more during the course of the pregnancy. In addition, if you're concerned about your level of fatigue or any other symptoms, consult your health care provider.

How can anemia during pregnancy be prevented and treated?

Prenatal vitamins typically contain iron. Taking a prenatal vitamin that contains iron can help prevent and treat anemia during pregnancy. In some cases, your health care provider might recommend a separate iron supplement. During pregnancy, you need 27 milligrams of iron a day.

Good nutrition can also prevent anemia during pregnancy. Dietary sources of iron include lean red meat, poultry and fish. Other options include iron-fortified breakfast cereals, beans and vegetables.

The iron from animal products, such as meat, is most easily absorbed. To enhance the absorption of iron from plant sources and supplements, pair them with a food or drink high in vitamin C - such as orange juice, tomato juice or strawberries. If you take iron supplements with orange juice, avoid the calcium-fortified variety. Although calcium is an essential nutrient during pregnancy, calcium can decrease iron absorption.

How is anemia during pregnancy treated?

If you are taking a prenatal vitamin that contains iron and you are anemic, your health care provider might recommend testing to determine other possible causes. In some cases, you might need to see a doctor who specializes in treating blood disorders (hematologist). If the cause is iron deficiency, additional supplemental iron may be suggested. If you have a history of gastric or small bowel surgery or are unable to tolerate oral iron, you might need intravenous iron administration.

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