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Overview of Anemia

What is anemia?

Anemia is a common blood disorder. It occurs when there are fewer red blood cells than normal, or there is a low concentration of hemoglobin in the blood.

  • Hemoglobin. This is the iron-containing protein inside the red blood cell. It carries oxygen from the lungs to tissues in the body.
  • Hematocrit. This is the percentage of the volume of whole blood that is made up by the red blood cells.

There are several different types of anemia. Each has a specific cause and treatment. They include:

  • Iron-deficiency anemia
  • Vitamin B12 deficiency anemia
  • Anemia of folate deficiency
  • Hemolytic anemia
  • Sickle cell anemia
  • Cooley's anemia (beta thalassemia)
  • Aplastic anemia
  • Chronic anemia
  • Kidney failure associated anemia

What causes anemia?

Anemia is often a symptom of a disease rather than a disease itself. Anemia usually develops due to the presence of one of the following:

  • Excessive blood loss
  • Not enough red blood cells being produced
  • Too many red blood cells being destroyed
  • Not enough red blood cells being produced and too many being destroyed

Generally, anemia may be caused by several problems, including the following:

  • Certain infections
  • Certain diseases
  • Certain medications
  • Poor nutrition
  • Blood loss

Who is at risk for anemia?

Although anyone can get anemia, it is more common in women of childbearing age. It's also more common during pregnancy, infancy, and in older adults. Risk factors include:

  • A diet low in iron-rich foods
  • Heavy menstrual periods
  • Chronic diseases like kidney disease, rheumatoid arthritis, HIV, Crohn's disease, and heart, liver, or thyroid disease

What are the symptoms of anemia?

Most symptoms of anemia are a result of the decreased amount of oxygen getting to the cells and tissues of the body. This is called hypoxia. Because the hemoglobin in red blood cells carries oxygen, a decreased production or number of these cells results in hypoxia. Many of the symptoms will not be present with mild anemia, as the body can often make up for gradual changes in hemoglobin.

The following are the most common symptoms of anemia. However, each person may experience symptoms differently. The symptoms may include:

  • Abnormal paleness or lack of color of the skin
  • Increased heart rate
  • Breathlessness, or difficulty catching a breath
  • Lack of energy, or tiring easily
  • Dizziness or faintness, especially when standing
  • Headache
  • Irritability
  • Irregular menstruation cycles
  • Absent or delayed menstruation
  • Sore or swollen tongue
  • Jaundice, or yellowing of skin, eyes, and mouth
  • Enlarged spleen or liver
  • Impaired wound and tissue healing

The symptoms of anemia may look like other blood disorders or medical problems. Because anemia is often a symptom associated with another disease, it is important for your health care provider to be aware of symptoms you may have. Always consult your health care provider for a diagnosis.

How is anemia diagnosed?

Your doctor may think you have anemia based on your symptoms, medical history and a physical exam. Anemia is usually confirmed using blood tests that measure the concentration of hemoglobin and the number of red blood cells.

Other tests may include:

  • Other blood tests
  • Bone marrow aspiration and/or biopsy. A procedure that involves taking a small amount of bone marrow fluid (aspiration) and/or solid bone marrow tissue (called a core biopsy), usually from the hip bones. The sample is examined for the number, size, and maturity of blood cells and/or abnormal cells.

How is anemia treated?

Specific treatment for anemia will be determined by your health care provider based on:

  • Your age, overall health, and medical history
  • Extent of the disease
  • Your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
  • Expectations for the course of the disease
  • Your opinion or preference

Treatment may include:

  • Treating any underlying cause
  • Vitamin and mineral supplements
  • Change in diet
  • Medication
  • Blood transfusion
  • Bone marrow transplant
  • Surgery to remove the spleen, if it is related to hemolytic anemia
  • Antibiotics if an infection is the cause

What are the complications of anemia?

Mild anemia may have no complications. But, if body organs do not receive enough oxygen, organ damage may occur. The heart can be damaged by the increased stress of pumping faster and the extra work needed to deliver oxygen to the body. In some cases, the underlying cause of the anemia may be life-threatening.

Can anemia be prevented?

Preventing anemia includes eating a well-balanced diet that includes iron-rich foods and managing any chronic or underlying conditions that may be causing the anemia. For young women and women who have heavy menstrual periods, using birth control medications may help manage anemia.

Living with anemia

Some types of anemia, such as sickle cell anemia, are not curable. It is important that you work with your health care provider to develop a treatment plan that can minimize the effects of these diseases.

Key points about anemia

  • Anemia is a common blood disorder that occurs when there are fewer red blood cells than normal.
  • Anemia may be temporary, and easily treated, due to an underlying disease that can be treated, or due to a chronic condition such as sickle cell anemia.
  • Anemia can cause paleness, fatigue, rapid heart rate, dizziness, and other symptoms.
  • Prompt treatment can prevent, or minimize, damage to body organs due to a lack of oxygen.
  • Preventing anemia includes eating a well-balanced diet that includes iron-rich foods and managing any chronic or underlying conditions that may be causing the anemia.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your health care provider:

  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
  • At the visit, write down the names of new medicines, treatments, or tests, and any new instructions your provider gives you.
  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.
Overview of Anemia - WellSpan Health

Online Medical Reviewer: Finke, Amy, RN, BSN
Online Medical Reviewer: Gersten, Todd, MD
Last Review Date: 2014-04-15T00:00:00
Last Modified Date: 2016-09-01T00:00:00
Published Date: 2016-09-01T00:00:00
Last Review Date: 2007-03-30T00:00:00
© 2016 WellSpan Health. All Rights Reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

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