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Anemia and its Causes, Symptoms and Treatment Options

When your blood has a lower number of red blood cells than normal this is referred to as anemia. Anaemia is sometimes also referred to as low blood, tired blood or iron poor blood. When your red blood cells do not have adequate hemoglobin, anemia can also occur. Not only does hemoglobin give blood its red color, it is the protein that is responsible for helping the red blood cells carry oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body.

Having anemia means that your body is not getting enough oxygen-rich blood. Because of this people suffering from anemia can feel tired. Anemia symptoms can go beyond making a person feel tired. Severe or prolonged anemia can cause damage to the brain, heart and possibly other organs in the body. Extremely severe anemia can even cause death.

Fast Facts about Anemia

  • Anemia is caused by a lack of red blood cells or a lower level of hemoglobin.
  • People with anemia feel tired and week because their blood does not carry enough oxygen to their bodies.
  • Anemia that is severe or lasts a long time can cause damage to the heart, brain and other organs. Extremely severe anemia can even cause death.
  • Anemia is common.
  • There are three main causes of anemia. They are a high rate of red blood cell destruction, lack of red blood cells being produced and blood loss.
  • Fatigue is the most common symptom of anemia, but it does have several other symptoms or may show no symptoms at all.
  • Usually the first test used to diagnose anemia is a CBC.
  • The type, severity and cause of anemia will determine the treatment.
  • You can prevent anemia from reoccurring by treating the underlying condition, making diet changes or taking supplements.
  • Some types of anemia can be short term and mild with proper treatment.

Types of Anemia

  • Thalassemias
  • Blood loss anemia
  • Sickle cell anemia
  • Cooley’s anemia
  • Pernicious anemia
  • Diamond-Blackfan anemia
  • Iron-deficiency anemia
  • Fanconi anemia
  • Hemolytic anemia
  • Folic acid or Foliate deficiency anemia
  • Aplastic anemia

Common Causes of Anemia

Anemia has three main causes. They are blood loss, a high rate of blood cell destruction and limited production of red blood cells. Some patient’s anemia is triggered by more than one of these causes.

The most common cause of anemia is blood loss. This type can persist over time or be a short term condition. When a great deal of blood is lost the body may lose enough of its red blood cells to trigger anemia. Some causes of blood loss that can lead to anemia are trauma, surgery, cancer, bleeding in the urinary or digestive tract or a heavy menstrual period.

There are conditions both inherited, your parents passed on the genes, and acquired, you were not born with the condition, which can keep your body from manufacturing enough red blood cells. Acquired conditions that keep your body from making enough red blood cells include diet, hormones, certain chronic diseases and pregnancy. A condition that can be inherited or acquired that can keep your body from producing enough red blood cells is aplastic anemia.

Your body can be prevented from making enough red blood cells by a diet that lacks vitamin B 12, folic acid or iron. In addition to those nutrients, the body needs vitamin C, copper and riboflavin in small amounts to make red blood cells.

A low level of the hormone erythropoietin can cause anemia. This hormone is essential to red blood cell production because it stimulates your bone marrow to make those cells.

There are diseases and treatments for other diseases that can also trigger anemia. Your body can have problems producing red blood cells when you have kidney disease or certain cancers. Your bone marrow or your red blood cell’s ability to carry oxygen can be damaged by the treatment for other cancers. Damage to the bone marrow can make it difficult for the marrow to replace red blood cells that die or are destroyed. Infections and the medications used to treat HIV/AIDS can trigger anemia.

Low levels of folic acid and iron in pregnant women can cause anemia. Changes in the blood can also trigger anemia during pregnancy. The blood is diluted during the first 6 months of pregnancy when the plasma, the fluid part of the blood, is created faster than red blood cells.

When a baby is born without the ability to make sufficient red blood cells it is known as aplastic anemia. Children and infants frequently need blood transfusions when they have aplastic anemia. Factors that can cause acquired aplastic anemia are infectious diseases, toxins and some medications.

A high rate of blood cell destruction can also be responsible for anemia and both inherited and acquired conditions can cause this. The spleen is responsible for removing worn out red blood cells from the body. When this organ is diseased or enlarged it can remove too many cells and trigger anemia.

Thalassemias, lack of certain enzymes and sickle cell anemia are all inherited conditions that can trigger the destruction of too many red blood cells. These conditions all create a deficit in the red blood cells that can cause them to die faster than a normal, healthy red blood cell would.

Both acquired and inherited conditions can cause hemolytic anemia. This anemia also causes the body to destroy too many of its red blood cells. Blood transfusions, some medications, infections and immune disorders can all lead to acquired hemolytic anemia.

Risk Factors for Anemia

All ethnic groups, races and age groups can be affected by anemia. Because of menstruation, women of childbearing age are at higher risk for anemia. The major risk factors for anemia are:

  • Infections that are long term
  • Inherited anemia in your family medical history
  • Loss of blood following an injury or surgery
  • Deficiency of vitamins, minerals and iron in the diet
  • Serious or long term illnesses like cancer, HIV/AIDS, diabetes, kidney disease, thyroid disease and inflammatory bowel diseases

Symptoms of Anemia

Feeling tired or weak, also known as fatigue is the most common symptom of anemia. People who suffer from anemia often have trouble finding the energy to do their normal daily activities. Since your body has to work even harder to get the oxygen blood to your body, you may experience a variety of other signs and symptoms. These include:

  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Headache
  • Pale skin
  • Dizziness
  • Cold hands and feet

When anemia is mild to moderate, it may cause minor symptoms or in some cases no symptoms.

Diagnosing Anemia

Anemia is diagnoses through a combination of physical exam, tests and procedures and your medical and family history. Since anemia does not always manifest symptoms, it may be found while your doctor is checking you for other diseases or conditions.

Your doctor will first ask you about your medical history and your family’s medical history. The doctor might also ask you about your diet and any medications you are taking. The next step is to do a physical exam and order tests. A complete blood count or CBC can check your blood for signs of anemia. The doctor may order additional tests including testing for internal bleeding.

Treatment Options for Anemia

The goal of treating anemia is to increase the amount of oxygen your blood can carry to the body. These can be done with diet and supplements to correct deficiencies. Medications can be used to stop the body from destroying the red blood cells. Antibiotics will be used to treat bacterial infections. Hormones would be used to correct erythropoietin deficiency or to regulate a heavy menstrual period. For more severe forms of anemia, blood transfusion, marrow and blood stem cell transplants and surgery may be needed.

Prevention of Anemia

Inherited types of anemia cannot be prevented. If your anemia is caused by problems with your diet, changing your diet and supplements can prevent it from reoccurring. Treating the underlying causes of anemia can prevent it from coming back.

Coping with Anemia

Living with anemia involves treating and controlling the anemia. Proper treatment can help alleviate symptoms and give you more energy. This will give you the ability to increase your activity level and improve the quality of your life.

Where to Get More Information: American Society of Hematology