Anemia is the most common noncancerous blood disorder affecting more than three million Americans.
What causes anemia?
Red blood cells—made in the spongy center of your bones called the bone marrow—carry hemoglobin, an iron-rich protein that attaches to oxygen in the lungs and takes it to tissues and cells throughout your body. Without oxygen, your cells do not have the energy to function. Symptoms of anemia occur when you do not have enough red blood cells or when your red blood cells do not function properly.
Am I at risk of getting anemia?
Certain factors increase the risk of anemia, including:
- Nutritional deficiency. Your body needs iron, folate, vitamin B12 and vitamin A to produce new red blood cells. Not getting enough of these vitamins and minerals increases the risk of anemia.
- Age. Anyone can get anemia, but people over 65 are at increased risk.
- Family history. Some forms of anemia are inherited, such as sickle cell anemia and thalassemia.
- Chronic medical conditions. Certain conditions, such as cancer, diabetes and kidney disease, can increase the risk of anemia.
- Gastrointestinal conditions. Certain conditions, such as Chron's disease and celiac disease, affect the small intestine's ability to absorb nutrients and increases the risk for anemia. Blood loss from an ulcer can also increase risk.
- Menstrual periods. Heavy periods increase the risk of anemia.
Other risk factors include infections, autoimmune conditions, blood diseases, excessive alcohol consumption and certain medications.
What are the types of anemia?
Physicians classify more than 400 types of anemia into three broad groups.
Anemia caused by blood loss. Many conditions cause this type of anemia, including gastrointestinal conditions like ulcers, hemorrhoids and stomach inflammation. In addition, menstruation with heavy bleeding, surgery or trauma can also cause anemia.
Anemia caused by decreased or faulty red blood cells. This type of anemia occurs if you have problems with your bone marrow, your body doesn’t get enough vitamins and minerals, or if you have an inherited condition. Pregnant women sometimes experience this type since they need more red blood cells to carry oxygen to the baby. A poor diet or chronic conditions like kidney disease, lupus, diabetes or rheumatoid arthritis can also change how your body makes red blood cells.
Anemia caused by the destruction of red blood cells. When your immune system attacks your red blood cells, you have autoimmune hemolytic anemia (AIHA). The cause of AIHA is unknown.
What are the symptoms of anemia?
Signs of anemia may not be noticeable at first. But, if the conditions worse, symptoms may include:
- Chest pain
- Cold hands and feet
- Fast or irregular heartbeat
- Fatigue and weakness (including feeling extremely tired for several consecutive days despite getting adequate sleep)
- Pale skin
- Shortness of breath
- “Whooshing” sound in your ears
How is anemia diagnosed?
Your primary care physician (PCP) will discuss your symptoms and order a blood test called a Complete Blood Count (CBC) to measure your hematocrit, the percentage of red blood cells in your blood. Hematocrit values are typically between 38.3% and 48.6% for healthy adult men and 35.5% and 44.9% for women. You may be diagnosed with anemia if your hematocrit value is low.
You may also need a second test, a Peripheral Blood Smear, to examine the shape and characteristics of your red blood cells.
Learn more about how to read a CBC.
What is the treatment for anemia?
Anemia is treated based on the cause. If your body is not getting enough vitamins and minerals, your doctor may recommend changing your diet or taking a nutritional supplement like iron or vitamin B.
If you have an underlying medical condition, your doctor will refer you to a specialist like a hematologist for additional testing and medical treatment.
Can anemia be prevented?
You can prevent some types of anemia by eating a healthy diet filled with iron-rich foods (such as leafy green vegetables and beans) or taking nutritional supplements. If you have other medical conditions, like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), your doctor may recommend you consult a gastroenterologist and registered dietitian before changing your diet.
Some types of anemia cannot be prevented and require medical treatment to avoid more severe problems.
Call 866-MY-LI-DOC (866-695-4362) to find a Catholic Health physician near you.