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Childhood anaemia: What you need to know

Anaemia can make your child feel cranky, tired, or weak. Children may have additional symptoms including shortness of breath and headaches.

Did you know that iron deficiency in infancy and early childhood is associated with negative neurocognitive, motor, and behavioural effects, some of which persist despite treatment?

We take a look at iron deficiency in children, medically known as “anaemia”. 

What is anaemia?

Childhood anaemia is a condition that affects your child’s blood and is characterised by one or more of the following changes in red blood cells:

  • decrease in the number of red blood cells
  • decrease in the size of red blood cells
  • decrease in the haemoglobin content of red blood cells

Iron deficiency anaemia is the most common nutritional deficiency in the world. However, anaemia in children is one of the most underdiagnosed conditions and as a result goes untreated. Iron deficiency anaemia is particularly common in children living in developing countries and poor communities but can affect children of all backgrounds.

Red blood cells and haemoglobin

Red blood cells, also known as erythrocytes, are formed in bone marrow and released into the bloodstream. This process takes between eight and ten days and happens on a continuous basis. Haemoglobin is a component in red blood cells that binds to oxygen and therefore carries oxygen through the body via the circulatory system. Iron is a vital component of haemoglobin and a deficiency in iron compromises the red blood cells’ ability to carry oxygen.

Signs and symptoms

Anaemia in children is sometimes asymptomatic, which may be the result of a very slow progression of the condition, during which symptoms develop gradually and therefore often go unnoticed. In general, anaemia makes your child feel physically weak and very tired with even the mildest form of physical activity. This is due to the lower level of oxygen which can be transported through the body. Anaemia also causes difficulty in concentration and is believed to compromise cognitive function in children if left untreated.

Apart from these symptoms, anaemia is sometimes characterised by paleness of skin, but in people with darker skin tones, this is difficult to detect. Paleness of the membranes on the inside of the eyelids is often used to indicate the possibility of iron deficiency anaemia. However, anaemia should be properly diagnosed through specialised blood tests that would not only confirm the anaemia but also specify the type.

What causes anaemia in children?

  • Menstruation in some teens may cause a regular loss of small quantities of blood which may result in anaemia if dietary iron intake does not compensate for losses.
  • Gastro-intestinal blood losses are sometimes caused by bleeding ulcers, haemorrhoids, cancer, or intestinal parasites.
  • Dietary iron deficiency results in iron deficiency anaemia. This may be the result of insufficient intake of iron-rich foods such as liver, red meat, other organ meats, pulses, molasses, spinach, and other dark green leafy vegetables. A deficiency in nutrients that support iron absorption, such as vitamin C, may also contribute to iron deficiency in children.
  • Children who are vegetarians are known to be at risk of iron deficiency, since the concentration of iron in plant foods is much less than that in animal-based foods.

Why anaemia is dangerous

Anaemia compromises the capacity of your child’s blood to transport oxygen through their body. Apart from the clinical symptoms, the reduction of oxygen transport in the body has far-reaching implications, including possible cardiovascular complications, as a result of compensatory responses.

Can anaemia in children be prevented?

The good news is that nutrition plays an important role in the prevention of anaemia. Sufficient intake of iron, vitamin C, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, and folic acid are required to maintain healthy red blood cells and sufficient haemoglobin levels. Iron deficiency anaemia in children can also be treated with the use of iron supplementation. For optimal absorption, an iron supplement should combine iron, vitamin C, and B vitamins.

Good to know: Always be sure to chat with your child’s doctor first, before giving them any type of iron medication.    

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