Anemia refers to a decreased number of circulating red blood cells and is the most common blood disorder. Symptoms can include headaches, chest pains, and a paleness of skin.
Anemia currently affects more than 3 million Americans and an estimated 1.62 billion people, globally.
Anemia is not strictly a disease, but a disorder. It is often a byproduct of other diseases that either interfere with the body's ability to produce healthy red blood cells or abnormally increase red blood cell breakdown or loss
In this article, we will look at the causes, symptoms, and treatments of anemia.
Fast facts on anemia
Here are some key points about anemia. More detail and supporting information is in the main article.
- Anemia affects an estimated 24.8 percent of the world's population
- Pre-school children have the highest risk, with an estimated 47 percent developing anemia, globally
- More than 400 types of Anemia have been identified
- Anemia is not restricted to humans and can affect cats and dogs
What is anemia?
There are many potential causes of anemia.
Anemia is diagnosed as any condition in which there is a decreased number of circulating red blood cells.
Conditions where our body does not produce enough healthy red blood cells, destroys too many red blood cells, or loses circulating red blood cells can all lead to anemia.
Red blood cells are critical to our body's well-being. They carry hemoglobin, a complex protein that contains iron molecules.
The main function of these molecules is to carry oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body.
If there are not enough red blood cells, an individual may experience symptoms such as feeling tired or weak.
There are more than 400 types of Anemia currently known and these are divided into three main groups according to their cause:
- Anemia caused by blood loss
- Anemia caused by decreased production or production of faulty red blood cells
- Anemia caused by the destruction of red blood cells
Causes of anemia
There is no single cause of anemia. Due to the great number of anemia types, it can sometimes be difficult to pinpoint the exact cause.
Below is a general overview of the common causes of the three main groups of anemia:
1) Anemia caused by blood loss
The most common type of anemia - iron deficiency anemia - typically falls into this category. In this case, the disorder is brought on by a shortage of iron, most often caused by blood loss.
The blood loss can be categorized as acute and rapid or chronic. Rapid blood loss can include surgery, childbirth, trauma, or a ruptured blood vessel.
Chronic blood loss is more frequent among patients diagnosed with anemia. Here, the blood loss can be a result of stomach ulcers, cancer, or tumor. Women who undergo heavy menstrual bleeding may also be at risk of developing anemia.
When blood is lost, your body reacts by pulling in water from tissues outside the bloodstream in an attempt to keep the blood vessels filled. This additional water dilutes the blood, and, as a result, the red blood cells are diluted.
2) Anemia caused by decreased or faulty red blood cell productions
A patient's diet can be a cause of anemia. A lack of iron or vitamin-rich foods severely affects the body's ability to produce enough red blood cells.
Vegetarians are particularly at risk of anemia due to the elimination of meat which is high iron content. However, there are other iron-rich foods like leafy greens or iron and vitamin supplements that can be incorporated into the diet.
Located in the center of our bones is a soft, spongy tissue, called bone marrow, which is essential for the creation of red blood cells. Bone marrow produces stem cells, which develop into red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets.
Bone marrow can be affected by a number of diseases such as leukemia, where abnormal white blood cells are produced in excess, which disrupts normal production of red blood cells.
3) Anemia caused by the destruction of red blood cells
Red blood cells typically have a life span of 120 days in the bloodstream, but they can be destroyed or removed beforehand.
One type of anemia that falls into this category is autoimmune hemolytic anemia, where the body's immune system mistakenly identifies its own red blood cells as a foreign substance and attacks them. Excessive hemolysis (red blood cell breakdown) can occur due to many other medical conditions.
Symptoms of anemia
- Paleness of skin
- Fast or irregular heartbeat
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
In mild cases of anemia, individuals have little to no symptoms. Some forms of anemia can have specific symptoms unique to their type:
- Aplastic anemia - fever, frequent infections, and skin rashes
- Folic acid deficiency anemia - irritability, diarrhea, and a smooth tongue
- Hemolytic anemia - jaundice, dark colored urine, fever, and abdominal pains
- Sickle cell anemia - painful swelling of the feet and hands, fatigue, and jaundice
Diagnosis of anemia
A complete blood count can help diagnose anemia.
To diagnose anemia, several methods can be used; the most common of which is a complete blood count (CBC), which measures a number of blood components, including the patient's hemoglobin and hematocrit levels (ratio of the volume of red blood cells to the total volume of blood).
No special preparation is needed for this test, and only a small blood sample is required.
A CBC can be an indication of a patient's overall health and can detect other conditions, such as leukemia or kidney disease.
A doctor can examine the results of a CBC and compare them with the recommended healthy levels. What constitutes a healthy level may differ depending on sex, race, and age.
Unfortunately, a complete blood count does not offer a definitive diagnosis of anemia. It is possible to be outside the normal range but still healthy.
If the red blood cell, hemoglobin, and hematocrit levels are all below "normal," then anemia is likely.
A doctor may also perform a physical exam and ask for information regarding the patient's family medical history.
Treatments for anemia
There are a range of treatments for anemia, all ultimately aimed at increasing the red blood cell count which in turn increases the amount of oxygen the blood carries.
A change to an iron-rich diet can help alleviate the symptoms of anemia. To do this, patients can eat more fresh vegetables like leafy greens, meats, and other recommended foods. Iron and vitamin supplements are also available, which are particularly useful for patients who are on a restricted diet.
A change in diet can boost iron, vitamin B12, and folic acid levels, which all play a part in the production of healthy red blood cells. The following foods are high in iron:
- Iron-fortified cereals and breads
- Dark-green leafy vegetables, for instance curly kale and watercress
- Pulses and beans
- Brown rice
- White and red meats
- Nuts and seeds
- Dried fruits, including apricots, raisins, and prunes
If the case of anemia is particularly serious, a doctor may prescribe medicine to help the body produce more red blood cells; or they may try to treat the underlying cause of the anemia itself. This can include antibiotics to treat infections or medication to help regulate heavy periods in women.
A man-made version of erythropoietin, the hormone that increases the rate of red blood cell production, can also be useful.
In some cases, a blood transfusion may be recommended to boost levels of red blood cells. If the bone marrow is diseased and unable to produce healthy red cells, a bone marrow transplant may be required.