Anemia is a condition in which you have too few red blood cells. Red blood cells contain a protein called hemoglobin. Hemoglobin carries oxygen from your lungs to your tissues and to your fetus. Iron is required to produce hemoglobin. To help produce more red blood cells, your body requires more iron. You can become anemic if you don't get enough iron. In your pre-pregnancy state, you needed a daily dose of about 18 milligrams of iron. Thanks to your growing fetus, you now require about 27 milligrams of iron per day.
Your doctor can detect anemia with a blood test, which will be performed at your first prenatal visit. Most women pass this initial check for iron deficiency with flying colors. In fact, the majority of expectant mothers start off pregnancy with enough iron stores to last until week 20. At that point in your pregnancy, your blood volume increases tremendously and with the increased volume often the hemoglobin in your blood drops.
Since the symptoms related to anemia often occur normally as a result of pregnancy, it is often not easily identified from symptoms alone. However, the symptoms that accompany anemia include:
Coffee and tea contain compounds that decrease iron absorption. So limit their use at meal times. Vitamin C may help your body absorb more iron. So include foods high in vitamin C, such as citrus juice and fruits, strawberries, bell peppers, dark leafy vegetables, and potatoes. Iron from meat, fish, and poultry is better absorbed than the iron from plant sources. So vegetarians must be especially diligent about taking their prescribed iron supplement.
Effective treatment for anemia is generally taking an iron supplement by mouth. Iron pills are large and difficult for some women to swallow. If so, you can usually break them in half and have one half with breakfast and the other with lunch. Drink a lot of water and eat foods that are high in fiber as iron can be constipating. You doctor may also prescribe you a stool softener.
Women who are unable to tolerate oral iron will be given iron through an intravenous infusion. Increasing the iron in your diet will also be encouraged. If the anemia is severe and was coupled with any kind of blood loss, then you might need a blood transfusion, but this is unusual.
Severe anemia increases the risk of problems in pregnancy, including prematurity, low birth weight, and stillbirth. Even mild anemia is risky for mothers, because all women lose a fair amount of blood at the time of delivery, and it's not good to start out with low blood counts.
For the best outcomes, avoid anemia during pregnancy by taking your prenatal vitamins, as well as any iron supplements your doctor recommends.
Review Date: 12/9/2012
Reviewed By: Irina Burd, MD, PhD, Maternal Fetal Medicine, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team. A.D.A.M. Editorial Update: 06/11/2014