Anemia is diagnosed as any condition in which our body does not produce enough healthy red blood cells. The condition has been discovered to date back to more than 4,000 years ago and is the most common blood disorder.
Fast facts on anemia
Here are some key points on anemia. More detail and supporting information is in the main article.
- Globally, anemia affects an estimated 1.62 billion people, this accounts for 24.8% of the world’s population.
- Pre-school children are at the most risk of the condition, with an estimated 47% suffering from the disease.
- There are currently more than 400 types of Anemia identified.
- Iron deficiency anemia is the most common type of blood disorder worldwide.
- Iron rich foods to combat anemia include meat, fish, mussels and oysters.
- Anemia is not restricted to humans and can affect cats and dogs.
- In developing countries every second pregnant woman and about 40% of preschool children are estimated to be anemic.2
- Individuals can have a mild form of anemia and, therefore, show little to no symptoms.
- Fatigue is the most common symptom of anemia, regardless of type.
What is anemia?
Anemia is diagnosed as any condition in which our body does not produce enough healthy red blood cells.
Red blood cells are critical to our body’s well-being. They carry hemoglobin, a complex protein that contains iron molecules. The main function of these molecules is to carry adequate oxygen from the lungs to the rest of your body.
If your body is not supported by enough red blood cells, then you may experience symptoms such as feeling tired or weak.
There are more than 400 types of Anemia currently known and these are divided into three main groups according to their cause.
- Anemia caused by blood loss
- Anemia caused by decreased or faulty red blood cells
- Anemia caused by the destruction of red blood cells.
Below, is a general overview of the causes of anemia according to the three main causal groups:
1: Anemia caused by blood loss
The most common type of anemia – iron deficiency anemia – falls into this category. In this case, the disorder is brought on by a shortage of iron in the body, most often caused by blood loss that exceeds the production of new red blood cells.
The blood loss can be both rapid and chronic. Examples of rapid blood loss can include surgery, childbirth or a ruptured blood vessel.
Chronic blood loss is more frequent among patients diagnosed with anemia. Here, the blood loss can be a result of stomach ulcers, cancer or tumor. Women who undergo heavy menstrual bleeding may also be at risk of developing anemia.
When blood is lost, your body reacts by pulling water from tissues outside the bloodstream in an attempt to keep the blood vessels filled. This additional water dilutes the blood, and as a result, the concentration of red blood cells in your blood are fewer.
2: Anemia caused by decreased or faulty red blood cells
A patient’s diet can be a cause of anemia. A lack of iron or vitamin-rich foods severely impacts the body’s capacity to produce enough healthy red blood cells.
Vegetarians are particularly at risk of anemia due to the elimination of meat and, therefore, its high iron content from the diet. However, there are other iron-rich foods and iron and vitamin supplements available for patients undergoing a restricted diet.
Located in the center of our bones, the bone marrow is an essential component to the development of healthy red blood cells. The soft sponge-like tissue produces stem cells, which in turn, develop red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets.
Bone marrow can be affected by a number of diseases such as leukemia, where abnormal white blood cells are produced. The production of healthy red blood cells is hampered without healthy bone marrow.
3: Anemia caused by the destruction of red blood cells
Red blood cells typically have a life span of 120 days in the bloodstream,4 but they can be destroyed or removed beforehand.
One type of anemia that falls under this category is autoimmune hemolytic anemia. This is characterized by the body’s immune system mistakenly identifying its own red blood cells as a foreign substance and subsequently producing antibodies.
Symptoms of anemia
The most common symptom of anemia, regardless of type, is a feeling of fatigue and a lack of energy.
Other common symptoms of anemia may include:
- Paleness of skin
- Fast or irregular heartbeat
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
It is possible for patients to have a mild form of anemia and they may, therefore, show little to no symptoms. Some forms of anemia can have specific symptoms unique to its type:5
- Aplastic anemia – individuals can suffer from nausea and skin rashes
- Folic acid deficiency anemia – symptoms can include irritability, diarrhea, and a smooth tongue
- Hemolytic anemia – individuals may display signs of jaundice. Leg ulcers and abdominal pains are signs to this type of anemia
- Sickle cell anemia – early symptoms can include a painful swelling of the feet and hands, fatigue and jaundice.
Test and diagnosis of anemia
To diagnose anemia, several methods can be used. The most common method is a complete blood count (CBC), which measures several components and features of blood, including the patient’s hemoglobin and hematocrit levels. No special preparation is needed, and only a small blood sample is required.
The results are a good indication of a patient’s overall health and is not only limited to detecting anemia, but also other conditions such as leukemia or kidney disease.
A doctor can examine the results of a CBC and compare them with the recommended healthy levels. What constitutes a healthy level may be differ depending on sex, race and age.
Unfortunately, a complete blood count does not offer a definitive diagnostic test of anemia. It is possible to be outside the normal range but still healthy.
If your red blood cell, hemoglobin and hematocrit levels are below “normal,” then you may have anemia.
A doctor may also perform a physical exam and ask for information regarding your family’s medical history.
Treatments for anemia
There are a number of treatments for anemia, all ultimately aimed at increasing the amount oxygen your blood carries, which, in turn, raises the red blood cell count.
A change to an iron-rich diet can help alleviate the symptoms of anemia. To do this, patients can eat more fresh vegetables, meats and other recommended foods. Iron and vitamin supplements are also available, which is particularly useful for patients who are on a restricted diet.
A change in your diet can boost iron, vitamin B12, and folic acid levels, which all play a part in the production of healthy red blood cells.
If the anemia is particularly serious, your doctor may prescribe medicine to enable your body to produce more red blood cells or to try and treat the underlying cause of the anemia itself. This can include antibiotics to treat infections and medication to help regulate heavy menstrual bleeding in women.
A manmade version of erythropoietin, the hormone that increases the rate of production for red blood cells, can also be prescribed by doctors.
In some cases, a blood transfusion may be recommended to boost levels of red blood cells. If the bone marrow is diseased and unable to produce healthy red cells, then a bone marrow transplant may be required.