Mild anemia is typically treatable. However, some types of anemia, such as thalassemia and aplastic anemia, are more severe and can be life threatening.

Anemia is widespread throughout the world, with approximately one-third of the global population having the condition.

Anemia occurs when the blood does not contain enough healthy red blood cells. As red blood cells carry oxygen around the body, anemia means the body does not receive adequate oxygen through the blood.

This article looks at whether anemia is life threatening, symptoms of severe types of anemia, and the treatment options available.

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The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) notes that anemia can develop due to a person’s diet, medications they are taking, or certain medical conditions. Some types of anemia are inherited. Iron-deficiency anemia is the most common type of anemia.

Mild anemia is common and treatable. However, if left untreated, iron-deficiency anemia and other forms of moderate to severe anemia can result in life threatening complications and, in some cases, death.

These life threatening complications occur because the organs cannot function properly when they do not receive enough oxygen.

Types of anemia that may be life threatening include the following:

Severe thalassemia

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), thalassemia is an inherited type of anemia. There are different types of thalassemia, including thalassemia major and minor.

In this blood disorder, the body does not produce enough hemoglobin, which is an iron-rich protein. This insufficiency leads to dysfunction in a person’s red blood cells and causes the red blood cells to die more quickly than usual.

As red blood cells die more quickly, they are unable to transport oxygen-rich blood throughout the body effectively, resulting in complications and, in some severe cases, death.

Heart failure and irregular heart rhythm are the most common cause of death due to thalassemia.

Aplastic anemia

The NHLBI notes that aplastic anemia is a rare type of bone marrow failure in which the bone marrow cannot produce enough new blood cells that the body needs to function efficiently.

In severe cases, aplastic anemia can lead to complications such as heart failure, leukemia, bleeding, and other blood disorders.

Hemolytic anemia

Hemolytic anemia occurs when the body destroys oxygen-carrying red blood cells faster than it can replace them.

The body typically destroys old red blood cells it no longer requires through hemolysis. However, if too much hemolysis occurs, the body will have insufficient red blood cells.

Severe hemolytic anemia can lead to potentially fatal complications, such as heart failure.

Sickle cell anemia

Sickle cell anemia is a type of hemolytic anemia in which a person’s hemoglobin protein is abnormal. This can lead to red blood cells becoming inflexible, causing them to become distinctly sickle-shaped.

The cells may then become lodged and block blood flow to the organs.

In severe cases, sickle cell anemia can lead to disability and life threatening complications, such as organ damage.

Fanconi anemia

Fanconi anemia is a rare genetic disorder that can impair bone marrow function.

People with this type of anemia may also develop other types of anemia and other complications, such as an increased risk of acute myeloid leukemia.

Learn more about the links between anemia and leukemia.

A 2022 overview of research notes that the outlook for those with iron-deficiency anemia is excellent, providing a person receives treatment.

The outlook is poor without treatment because long-term iron deficiency can lead to serious complications, such as lung or heart problems. These can then lead to death.

The outlook for severe anemia can vary depending on the type and cause of the condition:

  • Thalassemia: Thalassemia minor is usually asymptomatic and has a good outlook. Thalassemia major is severe. The long-term outlook depends on the treatment a person receives. However, over the past 50 years, the life expectancy for those with the condition has dramatically improved.
  • Aplastic anemia: Untreated aplastic anemia can be life threatening. Doctors may be able to cure some people with a bone marrow transplant. As the condition can relapse, a person will require regular follow-up appointments. Non-transplant options to treat the condition are also available.
  • Hemolytic anemia: Hemolytic anemia is rarely fatal, but the outlook can depend on various factors. These include the presence of comorbidities, the cause of the anemia, and how early a person receives a diagnosis.
  • Sickle cell anemia: A person with sickle cell anemia may have a reduced life expectancy. However, advances in treating the condition are improving survival rates.
  • Fanconi anemia: The outlook of Fanconi anemia is poor. People with Fanconi anemia are more likely to develop certain cancers and other complications. Although a bone marrow transplant might cure the condition in some people with, not everyone has access to this type of treatment.

Learn more about sickle cell anemia in African Americans.

Symptoms of anemia typically include:

Some symptoms may be specific to certain types of anemia and can indicate a more severe condition. A person may have a more severe form of anemia if they experience symptoms that include:

Learn more about the symptoms of anemia.

A person should contact a doctor if they have any symptoms of anemia, such as feeling weak and tired often.

Even the most common and less severe types of anemia may lead to serious complications without treatment.

If a person is deficient in iron or vitamins such as B12 or folate, a doctor will prescribe the necessary supplement and monitor the response.

Treatment for severe or life threatening anemia may depend on the underlying causes and specifics of the condition. However, the treatment and management of all types of anemia may involve:

  • Medication: A doctor may prescribe medication, such as erythropoietin injections, to help the bone marrow produce more red blood cells. Other treatments will depend on the underlying causes and conditions of the anemia.
  • Blood transfusion: A blood transfusion can rapidly increase the amount of healthy red blood cells in the blood.
  • Bone marrow transplant: Doctors also refer to a bone marrow transplant as a stem cell transplant. This can help replace dysfunctional stem cells that form blood cells incorrectly with healthy cells.

Learn more about stem cells.

What will happen if anemia is left untreated?

If a person experiences symptoms of anemia, they should contact a doctor. Without treatment, a person may be at risk of serious complications, such as organ failure. These complications can be fatal in some cases.

Some types of anemia, such as severe aplastic anemia, can result in serious conditions, such as leukemia, and become life threatening.

Even more common and milder types of anemia, such as iron deficiency anemia, may lead to serious complications without treatment.

Learn about blood transfusions and anemia.

Anemia is usually mild, and a person can typically receive effective treatment. However, some types of anemia are severe and potentially life threatening.

Types of anemia that may be fatal include severe variants of:

  • thalassemia
  • aplastic anemia
  • hemolytic anemia
  • sickle cell anemia
  • Fanconi anemia

These types of anemia can lead to serious complications, especially if left untreated. Complications may include certain cancers, heart failure, stroke, organ damage, and severe infection.

The outlook for different types of severe anemia differs. A doctor may be able to reduce symptoms of the condition with medication and blood transfusion. Sometimes, a bone marrow transplant can cure anemia.