NHS Choices – Complications of vitamin B12 or folate deficiency
As most cases of vitamin B12 deficiency or folate deficiency can be easily and effectively treated, complications are rare.
However, complications can occasionally develop, particularly if you have been deficient in either vitamin for some time.
All types of anaemia, regardless of what it is caused by, can lead to heart and lung complications as the heart struggles to pump oxygen to the vital organs.
Adults with severe anaemia are at risk of developing:
- an abnormally fast heart beat (tachycardia)
- heart failure where the heart fails to pump enough blood around the body at the right pressure
Vitamin B12 deficiency
A lack of vitamin B12 (with or without anaemia) can cause the following complications:
A lack of vitamin B12 can cause neurological problems (issues affecting your nervous system), such as:
- vision problems
- memory loss
- pins and needles (paraesthesia)
- loss of physical coordination (ataxia), which can affect your whole body and cause difficulty speaking or walking
- damage to parts of the nervous system (peripheral neuropathy), particularly in the legs
If neurological problems do develop, they may be irreversible.
Vitamin B12 deficiency can sometimes lead to temporary infertility (an inability to conceive). This usually improves with appropriate vitamin B12 treatment.
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.
Neural tube defects
If you are pregnant, not having enough vitamin B12 can increase the risk of your baby developing a serious birth defect known as a neural tube defect. The neural tube is a narrow channel that eventually forms the brain and spinal cord.
Examples of neural tube defects include:
- spina bifida where the baby’s spine doesn’t develop properly
- anencephaly where a baby is born without parts of the brain and skull
- encephalocele where a membrane or skin-covered sac containing part of the brain pushes out of a hole in the skull
A lack of folate (with or without anaemia) can also cause complications, some of which are outlined below.
As with a lack of vitamin B12, a folate deficiency can also affect your fertility. However, this is only temporary and can usually be reversed with folate supplements.
Research has shown a lack of folate in your body may increase your risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD).
CVD is a general term that describes a disease of the heart or blood vessels, such as coronary heart disease (CHD).
Research has shown that folate deficiency can increase your risk of some cancers, such as colon cancer.
Problems in childbirth
A lack of folate during pregnancy may increase the risk of the baby being born prematurely (before the 37th week of pregnancy) or having a low birthweight.
The risk of placental abruption may also be increased. This is a serious condition where the placenta starts to come away from the inside of the womb wall, causing tummy (abdominal) pain and bleeding from the vagina.
Neural tube defects
As with a vitamin B12 deficiency, a lack of folate can also affect an unborn baby’s growth and development in the womb (uterus). This increases the risk of neural tube defects such as spina bifida developing in the unborn baby.
Page last reviewed: 21/05/2014
Next review due: 21/05/2016