What is anemia?
A child who has received a diagnosis of anemia has a problem making or keeping healthy red blood cells.
Red blood cells contain hemoglobin, an iron-rich protein. It carries oxygen from the lungs and transports it to other parts of the body. Hemoglobin production is very important for a healthy growing child.
A child experiencing anemia may experience a number of these symptoms:
- Unusual fatigue or lack of energy
- Faintness or dizziness
- Frequent naps
- Trouble breathing or catching their breath
- Irregular or absent menstrual cycle
- Rapid heart rate
- Jaundice, yellow eyes and skin
- Delayed bodily development
Very young children and teenagers are the most prone to anemia due to both a growth spurt and a possible lack of nutrients in their diet.
Children most vulnerable to anemia are those who:
- Lack vitamins and minerals in their diet
- Have a genetic predisposition to anemia
- Were born prematurely
- Have undergone recent surgery or blood loss
If you have anemia, it means your body isn’t making enough healthy red blood cells to transport oxygen through your body. Anemia can be acquired or inherited genetically. There are many types of anemia, but the types most likely to affect children are:
- Iron deficiency anemia: When your body needs more iron than you have or can produce
- Pernicious anemia: When your body can’t metabolize vitamin B12 and folate properly.
- Hemolytic anemia: Happens when your body destroys red blood cells and your bone marrow (where your body makes red blood cells) can’t replace them fast enough
- Sickle cell anemia: An inherited condition where the normally circle-shaped red blood cells are shaped like a crescent moon, or sickle. This impairs the function of the cell
- Cooley’s anemia: Also inherited, Cooley’s anemia affects the shape and proper function of the red blood cell
- Aplastic anemia: When damage to your bone marrow prevents you from producing red blood cells
Diagnosis for anemia in children
Anemia is common in children, and most doctors will routinely screen for it.
There are several things a doctor can do to diagnose anemia. They will check your child’s signs and symptoms. They will ask you about their diet and genetic history. Then, they will probably take a blood sample to examine further.
The blood tests available to diagnose anemia are:
This test measures the amount of hemoglobin protein found in the red blood cells. It also measures the amount of red blood cells in the sample.
The CBC test examines all the components of the blood: red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelet count.
Reticulocytes are blood cells that haven’t fully matured. This is useful to measure when determining if your child is producing new red blood cells.
The doctor takes a smear of blood and examines it under a microscope to inspect the size and shape of the blood cells .
Treatments for anemia in children
Doctors can easily treat anemia in children, usually. The doctor will recommend a treatment plan based on the type of anemia your child has. After examining the blood sample and diagnosing your child with anemia, your doctor may recommend:
- Iron or vitamin supplements: If the type of anemia your child has is nutrition-based, your doctor may recommend nutritional supplements to encourage healthy red blood cell production and development
- Stem cell or blood transfusion: In more complex cases of anemia, your child’s body may have trouble producing and keeping healthy red blood cells. Stem cells are collected from a donor and placed in the recipient’s blood stream. From there, they travel to the bone marrow to produce new red blood cells
Children and teens need lots of iron for their growing bodies. A diet low in iron and nutrients can delay vital growth and development. Make sure they get the nutrients they need by eating a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables. Eating nutrient-fortified foods, such as breakfast cereal with added iron, is a way to supplement their diets.
Your doctor may also refer you to a pediatric hematologist, or blood specialist for children, in more complex cases of anemia.
Possible side effects and complications
Some more serious types of anemia in children require blood and stem cell transplants. These are necessary when the stem cells in your bone marrow don't produce healthy red blood cells. The stem cells need to be replaced. This is a normal and safe procedure for severe cases of anemia, but it can come with side effects.
Radiation is often used to kill the old stem cells and weaken the immune system before introducing the new stem cells. Radiation can cause:
There is a chance that your child’s body will reject the new cells, causing complications. Your doctor may want to monitor your child for a few days after the procedure.
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Cedars-Sinai: "Anemia in Children."
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: "Your Guide to Anemia."
University of Rochester Medical Center: "Anemia in Children."
University of Rochester Medical Center: "Diagnosing Anemia in Children."
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