Watch out for iron deficiency during pregnancy

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Iron is an essential mineral needed for a wide variety of metabolic processes. It is also a crucial component of haemoglobin.

The lack of iron can cause a condition known as iron deficiency anaemia, which leads to insufficient oxygen supply to your body.

More than one-third (37%) of pregnant Malaysian women suffer from both iron deficiency and anaemia, making them significant and challenging health problems.

A possible effect of severe iron deficiency in pregnant women is an increased risk of having a premature baby or one that is smaller than normal (medically termed “small for gestational age”).

Iron deficiency anaemia may be confused with thalassaemia, which is an inherited genetic blood disorder.

Be sure to inform your doctor if you have a family history of thalassaemia.

The actual amount of iron that your body needs on a daily basis depends on your age and overall health.

It is advisable to build up your body’s store of iron (and other nutrients) before getting pregnant.

You will need roughly twice the normal amount of iron during pregnancy.

During your doctor’s appointment, you will probably be asked to start taking prenatal vitamins, as well as a low-dose iron supplement.

Your body needs at least 27mg of iron every day during your pregnancy, so do include iron-rich foods in your diet.

These include meat and poultry, e.g. lean beef, chicken, egg, boiled cockles, chickpeas, bitter gourd, fried bean curd and ready-to-eat cereals fortified with iron.

Vague symptoms

Aside from pregnant women, iron deficiency is also common among lactating women (those producing breast milk).

However, the symptoms of iron deficiency can be vague and non-specific, such as:

  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Cravings for strange substances (e.g. dirt or clay)
  • Brittle, spoon-shaped nails
  • Hair loss
  • Sores at the corner of the mouth
  • Sore tongue
  • Difficulty swallowing, which may indicate severe iron deficiency

Remember to check with your doctor if you think you may be having iron deficiency issues.

But regardless of whether or not you have symptoms, do make it a point to check if you are iron-deficient, whether you are planning for a pregnancy or in the midst of one.

The risk of anaemia increases as your pregnancy progresses and dietary iron intake alone is insufficient to fulfil your body’s iron requirement.

Your doctor can do a simple blood test to check and diagnose the severity of your iron deficiency.

He can then prescribe the right amount of iron supplements you need.

However, as with other medications, keep your iron supplements in a safe location, away from children.

Inform your doctor if you experience symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, dark stools or constipation. These are symptoms of excessive iron in your body.

Do not take iron supplements on your own.

If your doctor determines that oral iron supplements do not work, injectables may be an option.

Dr H Krishna Kumar is a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist, and past president of the Obstetrical and Gynaecological Society of Malaysia. This article is courtesy of the Malaysian Paediatric Association’s Positive Parenting programme in collaboration with expert partners. For further information, please email starhealth@thestar.com.my. The information provided is for educational and communication purposes only and it should not be construed as personal medical advice. Information published in this article is not intended to replace, supplant or augment a consultation with a health professional regarding the reader’s own medical care. The Star does not give any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to the content appearing in this column. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.

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