What is anemia?
Anemia is a disorder characterized by a lack of red blood cells in the blood. Red blood cells use a protein called hemoglobin that contains iron molecules to carry oxygen from the lungs to all organs. Anemia occurs when the body is not supported by enough red blood cells and consequently the body is deprived of the oxygen it needs to function.
There are different types of anemia, each with its own cause. Some types can be mild and last for a short time while other types can be severe and long-lasting.
Anemia is the most common blood condition. The World Health Organization estimates the number of anemic people worldwide to be a staggering two billion.1
What causes anemia?
There are three main causes of anemia:2
- Blood loss: This is the most common type of anemia. Losing blood can cause iron-deficiency and without adequate amount of iron, the bone marrow is incapable of producing enough hemoglobin. Blood loss can occur from:
- Heavy menstrual periods
- Bleeding in the digestive or urinary tract
- Surgery or trauma
- Lack of red blood cells production: There are different factors that impede the body from producing enough red blood cells. These factors include:
- Poor diet: A diet deficient in iron, folic acid or vitamin B12 can cause anemia. The body also needs small amounts of vitamin C, riboflavin and copper to produce red blood cells.
- Abnormal hormone levels: A deficiency in a hormone called erythropoietin can cause anemia. This hormone stimulates the bone marrow to produce red blood cells.
- Chronic diseases: Disorders like kidney disease and cancer can impede the body from making enough red blood cells.
- Pregnancy: A lack of iron and folic acid during pregnancy can cause anemia.
- Aplastic anemia: This is an inherited condition in which the bone marrow is unable to make red blood cells.
- High rates of red blood cell destruction: Different inherited conditions can cause a destruction of the body’s red blood cells such as:
- Sickle cell anemia: This is a genetic disorder in which red blood cells become distorted. These defected cells can adhere to the blood vessels walls and block the flow of blood and oxygen to the organs.
- Thalassemia: This is a genetic disorder in which the body makes a defected form of hemoglobin.
- Hemolytic anemia: This is a condition in which the body destroys red blood cells faster than the bone marrow can produce.
What are the symptoms of anemia?
The symptoms of anemia can change depending on the underlying cause of the disease but may include:3
- General fatigue or weakness
- Coldness in the hands and feet
- Paleness of skin
- Heart palpitations
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Cognitive problems
How is anemia diagnosed?
Several methods can be used to diagnose anemia:
- Medical and family histories
- Complete blood count:
- Hemoglobin: This test checks the hemoglobin level. Normal adult hemoglobin levels are generally 14 to 18 grams per deciliter (g/dL) for men and 12 to 16 g/dL for women.
- Hematocrit: This test measures the percentage of the volume of whole blood that is made up of red blood cells. It is normally 45% for men and 40% for women.
- Other tests:
- Hemoglobin electrophoresis: This test can help diagnose anemia and determine what type of anemia a person has.
- A reticulocyte count: This test measures how fast the bone marrow is producing red blood cells by detecting the amount of young red blood cells.
- Tests for iron levels in the blood
How is anemia treated?
The aim of treating anemia is to raise the level of red blood cells and hemoglobin, to treat the causes of anemia and to improve the quality of life by relieving the symptoms.
- Diet: Following a healthy diet is essential to control and prevent anemia. A diet rich in iron, vitamin B12, acid folic and vitamin C is required. These nutrients are present in a variety of foods like vegetables (spinach and leafy vegetables), fruits (prunes, raisins, and apricots), whole grains, fat-free or low-fat dairy products, seafood, lean meats and poultry, eggs, beans (peas, lentils, soybeans, and chickpeas), nuts and seeds.5
- Antibiotics to treat infections
- Hormones to treat heavy menstrual bleeding
- Medications to prevent the immune system from destroying red blood cells
- Blood transfusions: Although some types of anemia are treated easily, other types may require repeated transfusions and other aggressive measures.
- Bone marrow transplantation: Some severe forms of anemia may require a replacement of damaged bone marrow with healthy marrow cells.
- "Focusing on Anaemia: Towards an Integrated Approach for Effective Anaemia Control." World Health Organization. UNICEF. Web. <http://www.who.int/topics/anaemia/en/who_unicef-anaemiastatement.pdf>. (Accessed December 9, 2015)
- What Causes Anemia? (- NHLBI, NIH). https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/anemia/causes (Accessed December 9, 2015)
- Anemia (Symptoms) http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/anemia/basics/symptoms/con-20026209 (Accessed December 9, 2015)
- How Is Anemia Diagnosed? (- NHLBI, NIH). https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/anemia/diagnosis (Accessed December 9, 2015)
- "Your Guide to Anemia." National Institutes of Health. Web. <https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/files/docs/public/blood/anemia-inbrief_yg.pdf>. (Accessed December 9, 2015)
- How Anemia Is Diagnosed and Treated (WebMD). http://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/understanding-anemia-treatment?page=4 (Accessed December 9, 2015)