Iron deficiency symptoms: Seven signs in your mouth that could signal a lack of iron

Iron deficiency symptoms are important to recognise because if the condition is left untreated it can make a person more at risk of illness and infection, can increase the risk of complications with the heart or lungs, and in pregnancy, can cause a greater risk of complications before and after birth.


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One of the most recognised symptoms of iron deficiency is tiredness and lack of energy.

But in some cases, signs of the condition can affect a person’s physical appearance, particularly inside or around the mouth.

Research has identified four signs to look out for on the tongue and three on the outside of the mouth.

Signs on the tongue include the tongue being swollen, sore, looking pale and feeling strangely smooth. 

Low haemoglobin in iron deficiency can cause the tongue to become pale, while lower levels of myoglobin can cause it to become sore, smooth and swollen.

Myoglobin is a protein in red blood cells that support the muscles, including the muscle that makes up the tongue. 

Signs on the outside of the mouth to look out for are having a dry mouth, sore red cracks at the corners of the mouth or mouth ulcers. 

Other symptoms of iron deficiency to watch out for include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Noticeable heartbeats (heart palpitations)
  • Pale skin

What causes iron deficiency

Iron deficiency can occur if a person isn’t getting enough iron from their diet, and for people who are pregnant, the condition is most often caused by this.

Heavy periods are another common cause of iron deficiency, but for those whose periods have stopped, iron deficiency could be a sign of bleeding in the stomach and intestines.

This can be caused by taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen, stomach ulcers, swelling of the large intestine, piles, or sometimes cancer.

How to treat iron deficiency

If you experience any of the symptoms of iron deficiency you should see your GP who will then recommend treatment.


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The NHS advises: “If your blood test shows your red blood cell count is low (deficient), you’ll be prescribed iron tablets to replace the iron that’s missing from your body.

“The prescribed tablets are stronger than the supplements you can buy in pharmacies and supermarkets.

“You’ll have to take them for about 6 months. Drinking orange juice after you have taken them may help your body absorb the iron.”

How iron deficiency can be prevented

If the condition is diet related, your GP may recommends foods rich in iron so you can eat more of them.

The NHS says you may be advised to eat and drink more:

  • Dark-green leafy vegetables like watercress and curley kale
  • Cereals and bread with extra iron in them (fortified)
  • Meat
  • Pulses (beans, peas and lentils)

The health body also advises you eat and drink less:

  • Tea
  • Coffee
  • Milk and dairy

Foods with high levels of physic acid, such as wholegrain cereals, which can stop your body absorbing iron from other foods and pills.

This is because these foods and drinks can make it harder for the body to absorb iron.

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