What is anemia?
Anemia is a blood disorder. Blood is a vital liquid that your heart constantly pumps through your veins and arteries and all throughout your body. When something goes wrong in your blood, it can affect your health and quality of life.
Many types of anemia exist, such as iron-deficiency anemia, pernicious anemia, aplastic anemia, and hemolytic anemia. The different types of anemia are linked to various diseases and conditions.
Anemia can affect people of all ages, races, and ethnicities. Some types of anemia are very common, and some are very rare. Some are very mild, and others are severe or even life-threatening if not treated aggressively. The good news is that anemia often can be successfully treated and even prevented.
What Causes Anemia?
Anemia occurs if your body makes too few red blood cells (RBCs), destroys too many RBCs, or loses too many RBCs. RBCs contain hemoglobin, a protein that carries oxygen throughout your body. When you don’t have enough RBCs or the amount of hemoglobin in your blood is low, your body doesn’t get all the oxygen it needs. As a result, you may feel tired or have other symptoms.
In some types of anemia, such as aplastic anemia, your body also doesn’t have enough of other types of blood cells, such as white blood cells (WBCs) and platelets. WBCs help your body’s immune system fight infections. Platelets help your blood clot, which helps stop bleeding.
Many diseases, conditions, and other factors can cause anemia. For example, anemia may occur during pregnancy if the body can’t meet its increased need for RBCs. Certain autoimmune disorders and other conditions may cause your body to make proteins that destroy your RBCs, which can lead to anemia. Heavy internal or external bleeding—from injuries, for example—may cause anemia because your body loses too many RBCs.
The causes of anemia can be acquired or inherited. “Acquired” means you aren’t born with the condition, but you develop it. “Inherited” means your parents passed the gene for the condition on to you. Sometimes the cause of anemia is unknown.
- Tiredness or weakness
- Pale or yellowish skin
- Faintness or dizziness
- Increased thirst
- Weak and rapid pulse, rapid breathing
- Shortness of breath
- Lower leg cramps
- Heart-related symptoms (abnormal heart rhythms, heart murmur, enlarged heart, heart failure)
Information About Specific Types of Anemia
Your body needs iron to make hemoglobin, the protein in RBCs that carries oxygen. The main way you get iron is from food. At certain times—such as during pregnancy, growth spurts, or blood loss—your body may need to make more RBCs than usual. Thus, your body needs more iron than usual. Iron-deficiency anemia occurs if your body can’t keep up with its need for iron.
Groups at risk
- Infants and children, adolescents, and women of childbearing age
- People who have certain diseases and conditions, such as Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, or kidney failure
- People who don’t get enough iron from the foods they eat
- People who have internal bleeding
Treatment: Iron supplements and dietary changes (eating food rich in iron and vitamin C, which increases iron absorption from food).
Vitamin B12 and folate (another B vitamin) are needed to make healthy RBCs. Your body absorbs these vitamins from foods. Pernicious anemia occurs if your body can’t make enough RBCs because it can’t absorb enough vitamin B12 from food.
Groups at risk
- People who have conditions that prevent them from absorbing vitamin B12
- People who don’t get enough vitamin B12 in their diets
Treatment: Vitamin B12 supplements and dietary changes (eating foods rich in vitamin B12, such meat; fish; eggs; dairy products; and breads, cereals, and other foods fortified with vitamin B12).
The term “anemia” usually refers to a condition in which your blood has a lower than normal number of RBCs. However, some types of anemia, such as aplastic anemia, cause lower than normal numbers of other blood cells, too. Aplastic anemia can occur if your bone marrow is damaged and can’t make enough RBCs, WBCs, and platelets. The causes of aplastic anemia can be acquired or inherited.
Groups at risk
- People undergoing radiation or chemotherapy, exposed to toxins, or taking certain medicines
- People who have diseases or conditions that damage the bone marrow
Treatment: Depends on the cause of the anemia. Treatments may include blood transfusions, medicines, blood and marrow stem cell transplants, and lifestyle changes.
Normally, RBCs have a lifespan of about 120 days. Your body constantly makes new RBCs to replace ones that die. Sometimes, RBCs are destroyed before their normal lifespan is up. Hemolytic anemia occurs if your body can’t make enough RBCs to replace those destroyed. Acquired hemolytic anemia occurs if your body gets a signal to destroy RBCs even though they are normal. Inherited hemolytic anemia is related to problems with the genes that control RBCs.
Groups at risk
- Risk groups differ depending on the cause and type of hemolytic anemia.
Treatment: Depends on the cause of the anemia. Treatments may include blood transfusions, medicines, surgery and procedures, and lifestyle changes.