Vitamin B12 is needed to keep the body’s nerve and blood cells healthy and helps make DNA, the genetic material in all cells. The nutrient is naturally found in a wide wide variety of animal foods and is added to some fortified foods so not getting enough of it in your diet is one of the primary causes of a B12 deficiency. It can be hard to spot a B12 deficiency initially, but, the condition can worsen if the condition goes untreated.
Most cases of vitamin B12 deficiency can be easily and effectively treated, so complications are rare.
However, as the NHS points out, complications can occasionally develop, particularly if you have been deficient in the vitamin for some time.
One of the more serious risks posed by a long-term B12 deficiency is neurological problems, which affects your nervous system.
Damage to the nervous system, also known as peripheral neuropathy, tends to affect the legs.
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Vitamin B12 deficiency: Damage to the nervous system tends to affect your legs
According to the NHS, the main symptoms include burning, stabbing or shooting pain in affected areas, loss of balance and coordination and muscle weakness or numbness in the feet.
Another lesser-known but potentially life-threatening complication complication of a B12 deficiency is stomach cancer.
The NHS explains: “If you have a vitamin B12 deficiency caused by pernicious anaemia, a condition where your immune system attacks healthy cells in your stomach, your risk of developing stomach cancer is increased.”
It is therefore important to recognise the early warning signs associated with a vitamin B12 deficiency and seek the appropriate treatment to reduce the risk of long-term damage.
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Symptoms of B12 deficiency include:
- A pale yellow tinge to your skin
- A sore and red tongue (glossitis)
- Mouth ulcers
- Pins and needles (paraesthesia)
- Changes in the way that you walk and move around
- Disturbed vision
- Changes in the way you think, feel and behave
- A decline in your mental abilities, such as memory, understanding and judgement (dementia)
How to diagnose and treat a B12 deficiency
If you are experiencing any of the symptoms associated with a B12 deficiency, your GP can diagnose the condition based on your symptoms and the results of a blood test.
The treatment recommended will depend on what’s causing the B12 deficiency.
Vitamin B12 deficiency anaemia is usually treated with injections of vitamin B12.
Vitamin B12 deficiency: Stomach cancer is another long-term complication of a B12 deficiency
There are two types of vitamin B12 injections:
According to the NHS, if your vitamin B12 deficiency is caused by a lack of the vitamin in your diet, you may be prescribed vitamin B12 tablets to take every day between meals.
Although diet alone cannot treat a deficiency, B12 can be found in the following foods:
- Salmon and cod
- Milk and other dairy products
According to the NHS, people who find it difficult to get enough vitamin B12 in their diets, such as those following a vegan diet, may need vitamin B12 tablets for life.
If you’re a vegetarian or vegan, or are looking for alternatives to meat and dairy products, however, there are other foods that contain vitamin B12, such as yeast extract (including Marmite), as well as some fortified breakfast cereals and soy products, explains the health body.
If your vitamin B12 deficiency is not caused by a lack of vitamin B12 in your diet, you’ll usually need to have an injection of hydroxocobalamin every two to three months for the rest of your life, notes the health site.
To ensure your treatment is working, you may need to have further blood tests.
“Most people who have had a vitamin B12 or folate deficiency will not need further monitoring unless their symptoms return or their treatment is ineffective,” added the NHS.