What is anemia?

Each case of anemia has an underlying cause and treatments address those specifically. Anemia can happen in people of all ages and from all ethnicities at any point in their lives.
Each case of anemia has an underlying cause and treatments address those specifically. Anemia can happen in people of all ages and from all ethnicities at any point in their lives.

Anemia is a blood disorder. It’s the most common blood disorder in America, affecting 3 million people in the U.S. Your red blood cells contain hemoglobin, a bright red protein that gives blood its color. Hemoglobin transports oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your internal organs.

Anemia can happen in people of all ages and from all ethnicities at any point in their lives. There are many different types of anemia. People who feel constantly tired, look pale, or experience an irregular or fast heartbeat may be experiencing anemia.

Symptoms of anemia

When your vital organs don’t receive enough oxygen, you might experience the following symptoms:

  • Feeling faint or dizzy
  • Paleness, cold and clammy skin
  • Weak, rapid pulse
  • Irregular heartbeat

People with mild anemia sometimes present no symptoms and only find out they have anemia through a routine blood test.

Causes of anemia

Anemia can happen for three main reasons. The first is if your body can’t produce enough red blood cells. Causes for this can include:

  • A low-iron diet
  • Certain chronic diseases, like Crohn’s disease or celiac disease
  • Pregnancy
  • Growth spurts in children under 3 years old
  • Genetics, in the case of normocytic anemia

The second reason is if your body destroys red blood cells faster than it replaces them. Causes for this include:

  • Treatments like chemotherapy that may damage blood cells and bone marrow
  • Infections from weakened immune systems
  • Birth conditions like thalassemia that eliminate red blood cells

The third cause is blood loss, which reduces the red blood cells in your body. Some causes for this may be:

Diagnosis of anemia

How do you know you have anemia? You may experience symptoms consistent with anemia and go to see the doctor. Other times, a person will discover they have anemia when they go for their annual physical or try to donate blood and find they have a low hemoglobin count.

If you suspect you have anemia and visit your doctor, they will ask you about your symptoms. It’s important to be as accurate as possible to help them reach a proper diagnosis. They will conduct a physical exam to confirm your symptoms and check for an irregular heartbeat or pulse rate.

They will also take a blood sample and test it for hemoglobin levels and blood cell count. This is called a complete blood count test (CBC). This is often the first step to diagnosing what kind of anemia you may have.

Depending on the doctor’s findings, they may order other tests to determine which type of anemia you have.

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Treatments for anemia

Each case of anemia has an underlying cause. For example, anemia may be due to low iron or low vitamin levels in the blood. In order to get the proper treatment for anemia, you first must get the underlying diagnosis, or what’s causing the anemia to begin with.

The most common type of anemia is iron-deficiency anemia. This is usually the result of low iron in your diet or a loss of blood. Your body needs iron to produce hemoglobins in your blood and ensure your organs get the oxygen they need.

Pernicious anemia is another common type of anemia to do with vitamins and minerals. This type of anemia develops when the body can’t absorb enough vitamin B12 from food. You need vitamin B12 and folate to make healthy red blood cells.

Rarer types of anemia include:

  • Aplastic
  • Hemolytic
  • Sickle cell

Medications

If you are diagnosed with iron-deficiency or pernicious anemia, your doctor may recommend a nutritional supplement, such as iron or vitamin B12, as part of your diet.

Home remedies

Having a healthy diet rich in vitamins is the best home remedy to ward off nutrition-based anemia. Ensuring you get enough iron and vitamin B12 in your diet will help your body make healthy blood cells.

Alternative therapies and surgery

In the cases of anemia where the body can’t produce its own red blood cells, the doctor may recommend a blood transfusion or a blood and bone marrow transplant.

During this procedure, a surgeon inserts stem cells from a donor into your bloodstream, where they will travel to your bone marrow. They can then begin the process of making new, healthy blood cells.

Possible risks and side effects of anemia

If you have a rare form of anemia, such as sickle cell or aplastic, your doctor might prescribe a blood and bone marrow transplant. There are some risks involved with this procedure.

Before the surgery, you may receive radiation therapy to weaken your immune system so your body doesn’t attack the new cells. You may need to stay in the hospital for weeks after the surgery, so your doctor can ensure your body is adjusting to the procedure and producing healthy red blood cells.

Although this surgery has been proven to work in the majority of cases, some complications can arise after the procedure. The radiation can cause:

Some people develop a disease called graft-versus-host (GVHD). This is a serious condition that happens when the new cells don’t adjust in their new environment and attack the new host. The body of the new host can also reject the new cells.

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Medically Reviewed on 1/21/2021
References
American Society of Hematology: "Anemia."

FamilyDoctor.org: "Anemia."

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: "Blood and Bone Marrow Transplant."

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: "Your Guide to Anemia."