Anemia is a condition in which you don’t have enough healthy red blood cells to carry adequate oxygen to the body’s tissues. Having anemia may make you feel tired and weak.
Anemia symptoms vary depending on the cause of your anemia but may include:
- Pale skin
- Irregular heartbeat
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Cognitive problems
- Cold hands and feet
Initially, anemia can be so mild it goes unnoticed. But symptoms increase as anemia worsens.
When to see a doctor
Make an appointment with your doctor if you’re feeling fatigued for unexplained reasons. Some anemias, such as iron deficiency anemia or vitamin B-12 deficiency, are common.Fatigue has many causes besides anemia, so don’t assume that if you’re tired you must be anemic.
Anemia occurs when your blood doesn’t have enough red blood cells. This can happen if:
- Your body doesn’t make enough red blood cells
- Bleeding causes you to lose red blood cells more quickly than they can be replaced
- Your body destroys red blood cells
Types of anemia
Different types of anemia and their causes include:
- Iron deficiency anemia. This is the most common type of anemia worldwide. Iron deficiency anemia is caused by a shortage of iron in your body. Your bone marrow needs iron to make hemoglobin. Without adequate iron, your body can’t produce enough hemoglobin for red blood cells.Without iron supplementation, this type of anemia occurs in many pregnant women. It is also caused by blood loss, such as from heavy menstrual bleeding, an ulcer, cancer and regular use of some over-the-counter pain relievers, especially aspirin.
- Vitamin deficiency anemia. In addition to iron, your body needs folate and vitamin B-12 to produce enough healthy red blood cells. A diet lacking in these and other key nutrients can cause decreased red blood cell production.Additionally, some people may consume enough B-12, but their bodies aren’t able to process the vitamin. This can lead to vitamin deficiency anemia, also known as pernicious anemia.
- Anemia of chronic disease. Certain diseases — such as cancer, HIV/AIDS, rheumatoid arthritis, kidney disease, Crohn’s disease and other chronic inflammatory diseases — can interfere with the production of red blood cells.
- Aplastic anemia. This rare, life-threatening anemia occurs when your body doesn’t produce enough red blood cells. Causes of aplastic anemia include infections, certain medicines, autoimmune diseases and exposure to toxic chemicals.
- Anemias associated with bone marrow disease. A variety of diseases, such as leukemia and myelofibrosis, can cause anemia by affecting blood production in your bone marrow. The effects of these types of cancer and cancer-like disorders vary from mild to life-threatening.
- Hemolytic anemias. This group of anemias develops when red blood cells are destroyed faster than bone marrow can replace them. Certain blood diseases increase red blood cell destruction. You can inherit a hemolytic anemia, or you can develop it later in life.
- Sickle cell anemia. This inherited and sometimes serious condition is an inherited hemolytic anemia. It’s caused by a defective form of hemoglobin that forces red blood cells to assume an abnormal crescent (sickle) shape. These irregular blood cells die prematurely, resulting in a chronic shortage of red blood cells.
- Other anemias. There are several other forms of anemia, such as thalassemia and malarial anemia.
These factors place you at increased risk of anemia:
- A diet lacking in certain vitamins
- Intestinal disorders
- Heavy Menstruation
- Chronic disease conditions
- Family history
- Other factors. A history of certain infections, blood diseases and autoimmune disorders, alcoholism, exposure to toxic chemicals, and the use of some medications can affect red blood cell production and lead to anemia.
- Age. People over age 65 are at increased risk of anemia.
- Severe fatigue. When anemia is severe enough, you may be so tired that you can’t complete everyday tasks.
- Pregnancy complications. Pregnant women with folate deficiency anemia may be more likely to experience complications, such as premature birth.
- Heart problems. Anemia can lead to a rapid or irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia). When you’re anemic your heart must pump more blood to compensate for the lack of oxygen in the blood. This can lead to an enlarged heart or heart failure.
- Death. Some inherited anemias, such as sickle cell anemia, can be serious and lead to life-threatening complications. Losing a lot of blood quickly results in acute, severe anemia and can be fatal.
Tests and diagnosis
Complete blood count (CBC)
A test to determine the size and shape of your red blood cells
Treatments and drugs
Anemia treatment depends on the cause.
- Iron deficiency anemia. This form of anemia is treated with changes in your diet and iron supplements.
If the underlying cause of iron deficiency is loss of blood — other than from menstruation — the source of the bleeding must be located and stopped. This may involve surgery.
- Vitamin deficiency anemias. Folic acid and vitamin C deficiency anemias are treated with dietary supplements and increasing these nutrients in your diet. If your digestive system has trouble absorbing vitamin B-12 from the food you eat, you may receive vitamin B-12 injections.
- Anemia of chronic disease. There’s no specific treatment for this type of anemia. Doctors focus on treating the underlying disease.
- Aplastic anemia. Treatment for this anemia may include blood transfusions to boost levels of red blood cells. You may need a bone marrow transplant if your bone marrow is diseased and can’t make healthy blood cells.
- Anemias associated with bone marrow disease. Treatment of these various diseases can include simple medication, chemotherapy or bone marrow transplantation.
- Hemolytic anemias. Managing hemolytic anemias includes avoiding suspect medications, treating related infections and taking drugs that suppress your immune system, which may be attacking your red blood cells.
Depending on the severity of your anemia, a blood transfusion or plasmapheresis may be necessary. Plasmapheresis is a type of blood-filtering procedure. In certain cases, removal of the spleen can be helpful.
- Sickle cell anemia. Treatment for this anemia may include the administration of oxygen, pain-relieving drugs, and oral and intravenous fluids to reduce pain and prevent complications. Doctors also may recommend blood transfusions, folic acid supplements and antibiotics.
A bone marrow transplant may be an effective treatment in some circumstances. A cancer drug called hydroxyurea also is used to treat sickle cell anemia.
- This anemia may be treated with blood transfusions, folic acid supplements, Prevention
- removal of the spleen (splenectomy), a bone marrow transplant or a another drug.
Choose a vitamin-rich diet
Many types of anemia can’t be prevented. However, you can help avoid iron deficiency anemia and vitamin deficiency anemias by choosing a diet that includes a variety of vitamins and nutrients, including:
- Iron-rich foods include beef and other meats, beans, lentils, iron-fortified cereals, dark green leafy vegetables, and dried fruit.
- This nutrient, and its synthetic form folic acid, can be found in citrus fruits and juices, bananas, dark green leafy vegetables, legumes, and fortified breads, cereals and pasta.
- Vitamin B-12. This vitamin is found naturally in meat and dairy products. It’s also added to some cereals and soy products, such as soy milk.
- Vitamin C. Foods containing vitamin C — such as citrus fruits, melons and berries — help increase iron absorption.