Anemia is a condition that occurs when the body has insufficient red blood cells or insufficient hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is the major ingredient of red blood cells, the part that enables the body to receive oxygen. When the cells of the body are oxygen-deprived, anemia, a serious but treatable condition, results. Anemia is a common blood disorder that can be temporary or long term, and it can range from mild to severe. Women, especially pregnant women, the elderly, and people with chronic diseases or poor diets, have an increased risk of developing anemia.

Causes and Types of Anemia

Blood loss is the major cause of anemia. Internal bleeding from ulcers or injury may result in anemia. Anemia may also be caused by insufficient production of red blood cells in the bone marrow or destruction of red blood cells within the body. Anemia may be the result of many different medical conditions. Many types of anemia are categorized by the cause or origin.

Iron Deficiency Anemia

Iron deficiency anemia is caused by the shortage of iron within the body. This may be the result of blood loss from heavy menstrual bleeding, ulcers, cancer, polyps or prolonged use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) drugs.

Vitamin Deficiency Anemia

This type of anemia is caused by a deficiency of iron or folic acid (B12). This may be due to a diet that is lacking in these essential vitamins. Some people may eat a balanced diet that includes these nutrients, however, their body is unable to process these vitamins. This condition may be referred to as pernicious anemia.

Aplastic Anemia

This is a rare and very serious form of anemia occurs when the bone marrow doesn't make enough red blood cells. It may be caused by infections, certain drugs or medications and autoimmune diseases.

Hemolytic Anemia

This type of anemia may be inherited or develop later in life. Hemolytic anemia occurs when the body destroys red blood cells at a faster rate than the bone marrow can replace them. Certain diseases may cause the increased destruction of red blood cells.

Sickle Cell Anemia

This is an inherited form of anemia that is caused by a defective form of hemoglobin that creates irregularly-shaped red blood cells. These red blood cells die prematurely, causing a chronic shortage to the body.

Chronic diseases including cancer, AIDS or Crohn's disease may interfere with the production of red blood cells, resulting in chronic anemia. Cancers of the blood or bone marrow can also cause anemia. Another rare form of anemia known as thalassanemia, is caused by defective hemoglobin. Illegal drug abuse or alcoholism may also contribute to anemia.

Symptoms of Anemia

The predominant symptom of anemia is fatigue. Other symptoms may include:

  • Weakness
  • Pallor
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Headache
  • Irritability
  • Feeling cold
  • Cognitive problems

Initial symptoms of anemia of often mild. Without treatment, however, symptoms of anemia may increase and become more severe because the organs are not receiving the adequate amount of oxygen needed to function properly.

Diagnosis of Anemia

Anemia is diagnosed through a review of symptoms and a physical examination. Blood tests are administered so a complete blood count (CBC) can be taken and red blood cells may also be examined for unusual size, shape and color. In some cases, a sample of bone marrow may be taken to to help diagnose anemia.

Treatment of Anemia

Treatment of anemia varies depending on the cause, and often focuses on treating the underlying disease or condition. If anemia is simply caused by an iron or vitamin deficiency, supplements may be prescribed and modifications to diet are often suggested. Other treatments may include blood transfusions, plasmapheresis, or medication to stimulate production of red blood cells. If the underlying cause of iron deficiency from anemia is loss of blood, the source of the bleeding must be located and stopped. This sometimes involves surgery.

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