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Iron Deficiency Anemia Workup

  • Author: James L Harper, MD; Chief Editor: Emmanuel C Besa, MD  more...
 
Updated: Nov 07, 2015
 

Approach Considerations

Although the history and physical examination can lead to the recognition of the condition and help establish the etiology, iron deficiency anemia is primarily a laboratory diagnosis.

Useful tests include a complete blood count (CBC); a peripheral smear; serum iron, total iron-binding capacity (TIBC), and serum ferritin; evaluation for hemosiderinuria, hemoglobinuria, and pulmonary hemosiderosis; hemoglobin electrophoresis and measurement of hemoglobin A2 and fetal hemoglobin; and reticulocyte hemoglobin content.

Other laboratory tests (eg, stool testing, incubated osmotic fragility testing, measurement of lead in tissue, and bone marrow aspiration) are useful for establishing the etiology of iron deficiency anemia and for excluding or establishing a diagnosis of 1 of the other microcytic anemias.

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Complete Blood Count

The CBC documents the severity of the anemia. In chronic iron deficiency anemia, the cellular indices show a microcytic and hypochromic erythropoiesis—that is, both the mean corpuscular volume (MCV) and the mean corpuscular hemoglobin concentration (MCHC) have values below the normal range for the laboratory performing the test. Reference range values for MCV and MCHC are 83-97 fL and 32-36 g/dL, respectively.

Often, the platelet count is elevated (>450,000/µL); this elevation normalizes after iron therapy. The white blood cell (WBC) count is usually within reference ranges (4500-11,000/µL), but it may be elevated.

If the CBC is obtained after blood loss, the cellular indices do not enter the abnormal range until most of the erythrocytes produced before the bleed are destroyed at the end of their normal lifespan (120 d).

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Peripheral Smear

Examination of the peripheral smear is an important part of the workup of patients with anemia. Examination of the erythrocytes shows microcytic and hypochromic red blood cells in chronic iron deficiency anemia. The microcytosis is apparent in the smear long before the MCV is decreased after an event producing iron deficiency. Platelets usually are increased in this disorder.

In iron deficiency anemia, unlike thalassemia, target cells usually are not present, and anisocytosis and poikilocytosis are not marked. This condition lacks the intraerythrocytic crystals seen in hemoglobin C disorders.

Combined folate deficiency and iron deficiency are commonplace in areas of the world with little fresh produce and meat. The peripheral smear reveals a population of macrocytes mixed among the microcytic hypochromic cells. This combination can normalize the MCV.

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Serum Iron, Total Iron-Binding Capacity, and Serum Ferritin

Low serum iron and ferritin levels with an elevated TIBC are diagnostic of iron deficiency. While a low serum ferritin is virtually diagnostic of iron deficiency, a normal serum ferritin can be seen in patients who are deficient in iron and have coexistent diseases (eg, hepatitis or anemia of chronic disorders). These test findings are useful in distinguishing iron deficiency anemia from other microcytic anemias (see the image below).

The sequence of events (left to right) that occur The sequence of events (left to right) that occur with gradual depletion of body stores of iron. Serum ferritin and stainable iron in tissue stores are the most sensitive laboratory indicators of mild iron deficiency and are particularly useful in differentiating iron deficiency from the anemia of chronic disorders. The percentage saturation of transferrin with iron and free erythrocyte protoporphyrin values do not become abnormal until tissue stores are depleted of iron. Subsequently, a decrease in the hemoglobin concentration occurs because iron is unavailable for heme synthesis. Red blood cell indices do not become abnormal for several months after tissue stores are depleted of iron.
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Evaluation for Hemosiderinuria, Hemoglobinuria, and Pulmonary Hemosiderosis

Iron deficiency anemia can occur from loss of body iron in the urine. If a freshly obtained urine specimen appears bloody but contains no red blood cells, suspect hemoglobinuria. Obtain confirmation in the laboratory that the pigment is hemoglobin and not myoglobin. This can be accomplished easily because 60% ammonium sulfate precipitates hemoglobin but not myoglobin.

Hemoglobinuria classically is ascribed to paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria, but it can occur with any brisk intravascular hemolytic anemia. In the early days of heart surgery with implantation of artificial valves, this mechanism of producing iron deficiency anemia was commonplace in large university hospitals. Today, with better prostheses, it has become a less frequent clinical problem. With less severe hemolytic disorders, there may be no significant hemoglobinuria.

Investigate renal loss of iron by staining the urine sediment for iron. Hemosiderin is detected intracellularly. Most of these patients have a low or absent plasma haptoglobin. Similarly, pulmonary hemosiderosis can result in sufficient loss of iron as hemosiderin from the lungs.

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Hemoglobin Studies

Hemoglobin electrophoresis and measurement of hemoglobin A

Hemoglobin electrophoresis and measurement of hemoglobin A2 and fetal hemoglobin are useful in establishing either beta-thalassemia or hemoglobin C or D as the etiology of the microcytic anemia. Unfortunately, simple tests do not exist for alpha-thalassemia in most laboratories, and it is a diagnosis of exclusion.

Reticulocyte hemoglobin content

Mateos Gonzales et al assessed the diagnostic efficiency of commonly used hematologic and biochemical markers, as well as the reticulocyte hemoglobin content (CHr) in the diagnosis of iron deficiency in children, with or without anemia.[4] The investigators identified CHr and iron serum as the only parameters that were independently associated with iron deficiency (P < .05), and CHr was the strongest predictor of iron deficiency and iron deficiency anemia.

Mateos Gonzalez et al concluded that measurement of CHr may be a reliable method to assess deficiencies in tissue iron supply and, in combination with a CBC, may be an alternative to the traditional biochemical panel for the diagnosis of iron deficiency in children.[4]

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Other Laboratory Tests

Stool testing

Testing stool for the presence of hemoglobin is useful in establishing gastrointestinal (GI) bleeding as the etiology of iron deficiency anemia. Usually, chemical testing that detects more than 20 mL of blood loss daily from the upper GI tract is employed. More sensitive tests are available; however, they produce a high incidence of false-positive results in people who eat meat. Severe iron deficiency anemia can occur in patients with a persistent loss of less than 20 mL/d.

To detect blood loss, the patient can be placed on a strict vegetarian diet for 3-5 days and the stool can be tested for hemoglobin with a benzidine method, or red blood cells (RBCs) can be radiolabeled with radiochromium and retransfused. Stools are collected, and the radioactivity is quantified in a gamma-detector and compared to the radioactivity in a measured quantity of the patient’s blood. An immunologic method of detecting human species-specific hemoglobin in stool is under development and could increase specificity and sensitivity.

Incubated osmotic fragility

Incubated osmotic fragility is useful. Microspherocytosis may produce a low-normal or slightly abnormal MCV; however, the MCHC usually is elevated rather than decreased, and the peripheral smear shows a lack of central pallor rather than hypochromia. Spherocytosis can normally be separated from iron deficiency anemia by peripheral blood smear.

Tissue lead concentrations

Measure tissue lead concentrations. Chronic lead poisoning may produce a mild microcytosis. The anemia probably is related to the anemia of chronic disorders. The incidence of lead poisoning is greater in individuals who are iron deficient than in healthy subjects because increased absorption of lead occurs in individuals who are iron deficient. Paint in old houses has been a source of lead poisoning in children and painters.

Bone marrow aspiration

A bone marrow aspirate can be diagnostic of iron deficiency. The absence of stainable iron in a bone marrow aspirate that contains spicules and a simultaneous control specimen containing stainable iron permit establishment of a diagnosis of iron deficiency without other laboratory tests.

A bone marrow aspirate stained for iron (Perls stain) can be diagnostic of iron deficiency, provided that spicules are present in the smear and that a control specimen containing iron is performed at the same time. Although this test has largely been displaced in the diagnosis of iron deficiency by serum iron, TIBC, and serum ferritin testing, the absence of stainable iron in a bone marrow aspirate is the criterion standard for the diagnosis of iron deficiency.

This test is diagnostic in identifying the sideroblastic anemias by showing ringed sideroblasts in the aspirate stained with Perls stain. Occasionally, it is useful in separating patients with the anemia of chronic disorders or alpha-thalassemia from patients with iron deficiency, and it is useful in identifying patients with both iron deficiency and the anemia of chronic disorders.

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Histologic Findings

The absence of stainable iron in body tissues, including the bone marrow and liver, is the most useful histologic finding in individuals who are iron deficient. Nonspecific abnormalities of epithelial tissues are reported in iron deficiency. These include gastric atrophy and clubbing of the small intestinal villi. While they suggest that iron deficiency is a pantropic disorder, they have little clinical diagnostic value.

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Contributor Information and Disclosures
Author

James L Harper, MD Associate Professor, Department of Pediatrics, Division of Hematology/Oncology and Bone Marrow Transplantation, Associate Chairman for Education, Department of Pediatrics, University of Nebraska Medical Center; Associate Clinical Professor, Department of Pediatrics, Creighton University School of Medicine; Director, Continuing Medical Education, Children's Memorial Hospital; Pediatric Director, Nebraska Regional Hemophilia Treatment Center

James L Harper, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Society of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology, American Federation for Clinical Research, Council on Medical Student Education in Pediatrics, Hemophilia and Thrombosis Research Society, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Association for Cancer Research, American Society of Hematology

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Coauthor(s)

Marcel E Conrad, MD Distinguished Professor of Medicine (Retired), University of South Alabama College of Medicine

Marcel E Conrad, MD is a member of the following medical societies: Alpha Omega Alpha, American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Association of Blood Banks, American Chemical Society, American College of Physicians, American Physiological Society, American Society for Clinical Investigation, American Society of Hematology, Association of American Physicians, Association of Military Surgeons of the US, International Society of Hematology, Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine, SWOG

Disclosure: Partner received none from No financial interests for none.

Chief Editor

Emmanuel C Besa, MD Professor Emeritus, Department of Medicine, Division of Hematologic Malignancies and Hematopoietic Stem Cell Transplantation, Kimmel Cancer Center, Jefferson Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University

Emmanuel C Besa, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Association for Cancer Education, American Society of Clinical Oncology, American College of Clinical Pharmacology, American Federation for Medical Research, American Society of Hematology, New York Academy of Sciences

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Acknowledgements

Ronald A Sacher, MB, BCh, MD, FRCPC Professor, Internal Medicine and Pathology, Director, Hoxworth Blood Center, University of Cincinnati Academic Health Center

Ronald A Sacher, MB, BCh, MD, FRCPC is a member of the following medical societies: American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Association of Blood Banks, American Clinical and Climatological Association, American Society for Clinical Pathology, American Society of Hematology, College of American Pathologists, International Society of Blood Transfusion, International Society on Thrombosis and Haemostasis, and Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada

Disclosure: Glaxo Smith Kline Honoraria Speaking and teaching; Talecris Honoraria Board membership

Paul Schick, MD Emeritus Professor, Department of Internal Medicine, Jefferson Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University; Research Professor, Department of Internal Medicine, Drexel University College of Medicine; Adjunct Professor of Medicine, Lankenau Hospital

Paul Schick, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Physicians, American Heart Association, American Society of Hematology, International Society on Thrombosis and Haemostasis, and New York Academy of Sciences

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Medscape Salary Employment

References
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The sequence of events (left to right) that occur with gradual depletion of body stores of iron. Serum ferritin and stainable iron in tissue stores are the most sensitive laboratory indicators of mild iron deficiency and are particularly useful in differentiating iron deficiency from the anemia of chronic disorders. The percentage saturation of transferrin with iron and free erythrocyte protoporphyrin values do not become abnormal until tissue stores are depleted of iron. Subsequently, a decrease in the hemoglobin concentration occurs because iron is unavailable for heme synthesis. Red blood cell indices do not become abnormal for several months after tissue stores are depleted of iron.
Sequential changes in laboratory values following blood loss are depicted. A healthy human was bled 5 L in 500-mL increments over 45 days. A moderate anemia ensued, initially with normal cellular indices and serum iron. Subsequently, the mean corpuscular volume (MCV) increased as iron was mobilized from body stores and reticulocytosis occurred. The serum iron decreased, followed by an increase in the total iron-binding capacity. Gradual decreases in the red blood cell indices occurred, with maximal microcytosis and hypochromia present 120 days after bleeding. Values returned to normal approximately 250 days after blood loss. At the end of the experiment, iron was absent from body stores (marrow) because hemoglobin has a first priority for iron. Iron-59 absorption was increased after all values returned to normal in order to replenish the body store with iron. This suggests that the serum iron, total iron-binding capacity, hemoglobin concentration, and indices were not the primary regulators of iron absorption.
The total body iron in a 70-kg man is about 4 g. This is maintained by a balance between absorption and body losses. Although the body only absorbs 1 mg daily to maintain equilibrium, the internal requirement for iron is greater (20-25 mg). An erythrocyte has a lifespan of 120 days so that 0.8% of red blood cells are destroyed and replaced each day. A man with 5 L of blood volume has 2.5 g of iron incorporated into the hemoglobin, with a daily turnover of 20 mg for hemoglobin synthesis and degradation and another 5 mg for other requirements. Most of this iron passes through the plasma for reutilization. Iron in excess of these requirements is deposited in body stores as ferritin or hemosiderin.
Dietary iron contains both heme and nonheme iron. Both chemical forms are absorbed noncompetitively into duodenal and jejunal mucosal cells. Many of the factors that alter the absorption of nonheme iron have little effect upon the absorption of heme iron because of the differences in their chemical structures. Iron is released from heme within the intestinal absorptive cell by heme oxygenase and then transferred into the body as nonheme iron. Factors affecting various stages of iron absorption are shown in this diagram. The simplest model of iron absorption must consider intraluminal, mucosal, and corporeal factors.
Ultrastructural studies of the rat duodenum from iron-deficient (top), healthy (middle), and iron-loaded (bottom) animals are shown. They were stained with acid ferrocyanide for iron, which is seen as black dots in the specimens. No staining was seen with acid ferricyanide. This indicates that iron was in the ferric redox state. Respectively, the specimens showed no iron, moderate deposits, and increased deposits with ferritin (arrow).Incubation of the specimens with iron-nitrilotriacetic acid to satiate iron-binding proteins with iron provided specimens with equal iron staining, except that the iron-loaded specimens contained ferritin. The quantity of iron in the cell is derived from both the diet and body stores. It probably is important in the regulation of the quantity of iron accepted by the absorptive cell from the gut lumen. The authors postulate that the iron either satiates iron-binding proteins with iron, up-regulates iron regulatory protein, or does both to diminish iron uptake by the absorptive cell. The consequences of these findings are depicted in the flow charts.
Mucosal cells in the proximal small intestine mediate iron absorption. Intestinal cells are born in the crypts of Lieberkuhn and migrate to the tips of the villi. The cells are sloughed into the intestinal lumen at the end of their 2- to 3-day lifespan. Absorptive cells remain attuned to the body requirement for iron by incorporating proportionate quantities of body iron into the absorptive cells. This iron and recently absorbed iron decrease uptake of iron from the gut lumen by satiation of iron-binding proteins with iron, by stimulating an iron regulatory element, or both. The incorporation of iron into these cells in quantities proportional to body stores of iron also provides a limited method of increasing iron excretion in individuals replete in iron.
Both nonheme iron and heme iron have 6 coordinating bonds; however, 4 of the bonds in heme bind pyrroles, making them unavailable for chelation by other compounds. Therefore, ascorbic acid chelates nonheme iron to enhance absorption but has no effect upon heme iron. Many dietary components, such as phytates, phosphates, oxalates, and tannates, bind nonheme iron to decrease nonheme iron absorption. They do not affect heme. This explains why heme is so effectively absorbed with foods containing these chelators. Iron hemoglobin structure.
Three pathways exist in enterocytes for uptake of food iron. In the United States and Europe, most absorbed iron is derived from heme. Heme is digested enzymatically free of globin and enters the enterocyte as a metalloporphyrin. Within the cell iron is released from heme by heme oxygenase to pass into the body as inorganic iron. Most dietary inorganic iron is ferric iron. This can enter the absorptive cell via the integrin-mobilferrin pathway (IMP).Some dietary iron is reduced in the gut lumen and enters the absorptive cell via the divalent metal transporter-1 (DMT-1/DCT-1/Nramp-2). The proteins of both pathways interact within the enterocyte with paraferritin, a large protein complex capable of ferrireduction. Excess iron is stored as ferritin to protect the cell from oxidative damage. Iron leaves the cell to enter plasma facilitated by ferroportin and hephaestin, which associate with an apotransferrin receptor. The enterocyte is informed of body requirements for iron by transporting iron from plasma into the cell using a holotransferrin receptor.
A 70-year-old man who is 4 years post-Whipple surgery for pancreatic adenocarcinoma had been in good health with no evidence of recurrence until he had a maroon-colored stool that was heme positive. Physical examination was unrevealing. Laboratory study values showed a WBC of 9000 cells/µL, a hemoglobin of 11.5 g/dL, a mean corpuscular volume (MCV) of 95 fL, a mean corpuscular hemoglobin concentration (MCHC) of 34 g/dL, a platelet count of 250,000 cells/µL, a creatinine level of 0.9 mg/dL, a BUN level of 27 mg/dL, a total bilirubin level of 0.4 mg/dL, a serum iron level of 160 µg/dL, a total iron-binding capacity (TIBC) of 280 µg/dL, and a ferritin level of 85 ng/mL. A peripheral smear is shown.
A 26-year-old white man was referred with a microcytic anemia that failed to respond to treatment with ferrous sulfate over 6 months. Physical examination showed only mild pallor of mucous membranes. His stool was dark but heme negative. The CBC count showed a WBC of 6000 cells/µL, a hemoglobin level of 11 g/dL, a mean corpuscular volume (MCV) of 70 fL, a mean corpuscular hemoglobin concentration (MCHC) of 33 g/dL, a platelet count of 234,000 cells/µL, a hemoglobin electrophoresis AA, a hemoglobin A2 value of 3.8%, and a fetal hemoglobin value of 2.0%.
 
 
 
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