Anemia is a low level of healthy red blood cells (RBC). RBCs carry oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. When red blood cells are low the body does not get enough oxygen. This can cause symptoms such as fatigue, pale skin, or irregular heartbeat.
There are several specific types of anemia, including:
Anemia of chronic disease
—chronic diseases can
slow the production of RBCs
—bone marrow is not able to produce enough RBCs
—iron is a building block of hemoglobin
Macrocytic B12 deficient anemia
—B12 is a building block of RBCs
Sickle cell anemia
—RBCs have an abnormal shape that causes destruction of RBCs and low levels of hemoglobin
Red Blood Cells
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The main causes of anemia are:
Blood loss, such as that caused by:
Heavy menstrual periodsBleeding in the digestive tractBleeding in the urinary tractSurgeryTraumaCancer
Abnormally low RBC production, due to:
Kidney diseaseCancerInfectionMedicationRadiationPregnancyLead intoxication
Abnormally high RBC destruction, caused by inherited disorders such as:
Sickle cell anemiaThalassemia
—difficulty in manufacturing hemoglobin
Risk factors that may increase your chances of anemia include:
Women of childbearing agePregnancyOlder adults with other medical conditionInfants younger than two yearsPoor diet low in iron, vitamins, and mineralsBlood loss (eg, due to surgery or injury)Chronic or serious illnessChronic infectionsFamily history of inherited anemia (eg, sickle cell anemia, thalassemia)
Symptoms of anemia may include:
TirednessFeeling faintPalenessShortness of breathDizzinessHeadacheColdness in the hands and feetPale skinChest painRapid or irregular heartbeat
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. Other tests may include:
Tests of your blood: Complete Blood Count (CBC)Other blood testsBlood smearStool sample
Bone marrow aspiration or
Talk with your doctor about the best plan for you. Options include:
Your doctor may suggest changes to your diet. The diet may include foods rich in iron, vitamin C, vitamin B12, and folate. Vitamins or iron supplements may be added.
To help treat your anemia or your symptoms, your doctor may prescribe: AntibioticsHormone treatmentEpoetinMedications that act on the immune systemChelation therapy
(for lead poisoning)
This procedure places healthy
or stem cells in the body. The goal is for the new tissue to produce healthy blood cells. This procedure carries risk. It is only done in severe cases of anemia.
Critical bleeding may be treated with surgery. In cases of very high RBC destruction, your
may need to be surgically removed.
Most inherited forms of anemia cannot be prevented. But the following steps may be taken to prevent certain types of anemia:
Eat a diet rich in iron and vitaminsTake iron or vitamin supplements, as recommended by your doctorTreat underlying causes of anemiaReport signs and symptoms, especially chronic fatigue, to your doctor
Guralnik JM, Eisenstaedt RS, Ferrucci L, Klein HG, Woodman RC. Prevalence of anemia in persons 65 years and older in the United States: evidence for a high rate of unexplained anemia.
Nissenson AR, Goodnough LT, Dubois RW. Anemia: not just an innocent bystander?
Arch Intern Med
Last reviewed November 2012 by Kari Kassir, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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