Anemia is a blood disorder. Your body contains about 5 to 6 quarts of blood, which are constantly being pumped throughout your body by your heart. Blood carries oxygen, nutrients, and other essential compounds. It also helps regulate your body temperature, fights infection, and gets rid of waste products.
When something goes wrong in your blood, it can have a big impact on your health and quality of life. In anemia, your body doesn’t have enough red blood cells (RBCs). RBCs are one of the three main types of blood cells. They contain hemoglobin, a protein that carries oxygen throughout your body. When you don’t have enough RBCs or the amount of hemoglobin in your blood is low, your body doesn’t get all the oxygen it needs. As a result, you may feel tired or have other symptoms of anemia.
What is Anemia?
Anemia happens when the number of healthy red blood cells in your body is too low. Red blood cells carry oxygen to all of the body’s tissues, so a low red blood cell count indicates that the amount of oxygen in your blood is lower than it should be.
Anemia is a medical condition in which the red blood cell count or the hemoglobin is less than normal. In men, anemia is typically defined as hemoglobin level of less than 13.5 gram/100 ml; and in women as hemoglobin of less than 12.0 gram/100 ml.
Generally, a decrease in production of red blood cells (decreased erythropoiesis), hemoglobin, or an increase in loss (usually due to bleeding) or destruction of red blood cells causes anemia.
Signs and Symptoms of Anemia
Some patients with anemia have no symptoms. The signs and symptoms of anemia vary depending on the cause. If the anemia is caused by a chronic disease, the disease can mask them, such that the anemia might be detected by tests for another condition.
Depending on the cause of your anemia, you might have no symptoms. Signs and symptoms, if they do occur, might include:
- Pale or yellowish skin.
- Irregular heartbeats.
- Shortness of breath.
- Dizziness or lightheadedness.
- Chest pain.
- Cold hands and feet.
Common Types of Anemia
There are different types of anemia with different causes. Here are some of the most common ones that you should know:
Sickle cell anemia
This is inherited and can sometimes become a serious condition. It is a hemolytic anemia caused by a defective form of hemoglobin that forces red blood cells to assume an abnormal crescent (sickle) shape. These irregular blood cells die prematurely, resulting in a chronic shortage of red blood cells.
Iron deficiency anemia
This is the most common type of anemia. It is caused by a shortage of iron in your body. Your bone marrow needs iron to make hemoglobin. Without adequate iron, your body can’t produce enough hemoglobin for red blood cells. This type of anemia occurs in many pregnant women, hence the need for iron supplementation during pregnancy.
It is also caused by blood loss, such as from heavy menstrual bleeding, an ulcer, cancer and regular use of some over-the-counter pain relievers, especially aspirin, which can cause inflammation of the stomach lining resulting in blood loss.
Vitamin deficiency anemia
Besides iron, your body needs folate and vitamin B-12 to produce enough healthy red blood cells. A diet lacking in these and other key nutrients can cause decreased red blood cell production. Also, some people who consume enough B-12 aren’t able to absorb the vitamin. This can lead to vitamin deficiency anemia, also known as pernicious anemia.
Anemia of inflammation
Certain diseases — such as cancer, HIV/AIDS, rheumatoid arthritis, kidney disease, Crohn’s disease and other acute or chronic inflammatory diseases — can interfere with the production of red blood cells.
This rare, life-threatening anemia occurs when your body doesn’t produce enough red blood cells. Causes of aplastic anemia include infections, certain medicines, autoimmune diseases and exposure to toxic chemicals.
This group of anemia develops when red blood cells are destroyed faster than bone marrow can replace them. Certain blood diseases increase red blood cell destruction. You can inherit a hemolytic anemia, or you can develop it later in life.
Diagnosis of Anemia
To diagnose anemia, your doctor is likely to ask you about your medical and family history, perform a physical exam, and run a complete blood count (CBC). A CBC is used to count the number of blood cells in a sample of your blood. Your doctor will be interested in the levels of the red blood cells contained in your blood (hematocrit) and the hemoglobin in your blood.
Normal adult hematocrit values vary among medical practices but are generally between 40% and 52% for men and 35% and 47% for women. Normal adult hemoglobin values are generally 14 to 18 grams per deciliter for men and 12 to 16 grams per deciliter for women.
The treatment and management of anemia is largely dependent on the type of anemia and its cause. Your doctor will determine the best treatment options and approach best suited for your case. Below are the general treatment options for the common causes of anemia:
- Iron deficiency anemia – iron supplements, medications, blood transfusions, surgery, or even cancer treatment.
- Vitamin deficiency anemia –Treatments can include dietary supplements and vitamin B-12 shots.
- Anemia related to chronic disease – treatment of the underlying disease, blood transfusions, or synthetic hormone injections to boost red blood cell production.
- Aplastic anemia –Treatment involves blood transfusions or bone marrow transplants.
- Anemia related to autoimmune disorders – drugs to suppress the immune system.
- Anemia related to bone marrow disease – medication, chemotherapy or bone marrow transplant.
- Hemolytic anemia – spleen removal, drugs to suppress the immune system, blood transfusions, or blood filtering
- Sickle cell anemia – Treatment typically involves oxygen therapy, pain relief medication, and intravenous fluids, but it can also include antibiotics, folic acid supplements, blood transfusions, and a cancer drug called hydroxyurea.
- Thalassemia – blood transfusions, folic acid supplements, spleen removal, or bone marrow transplant.
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
- American Society of Hematology.
- Mayo Clinic: “Anemia,” “Sickle Cell Anemia.”
- American Association for Clinical Chemistry: