Why don’t you have enough blood?
You’ve probably heard the word anemia before and might know that it has something to do with your blood, but what does it actually mean? What causes it? Is it something serious that needs immediate treatment or a chronic condition?
In order to understand anemia, you need to first understand about the blood that is in your body. There are many components that make up blood, but the main one that relates to anemia are red blood cells because they contain a protein, called hemoglobin, that carries oxygen and nutrients to all of the tissues in your body. Red blood cells are produced in your bone marrow (a spongy material found within the cavities of your large bones). To produce red blood cells, your body needs sufficient amounts of iron, vitamin B-12, folate and other nutrients from the foods that you eat.
Anemia is when your body doesn’t have enough red blood cells to carry oxygen and nutrients to the tissues of your body. There are three main reasons this occurs: your body doesn’t make enough red blood cells, your body destroys red blood cells faster than it can make new ones or you have some type of bleeding that causes you to lose a large amount of red blood cells. Due to the different causes, anemia can be temporary or long-term and mild or severe. There are many types of anemia with iron deficiency anemia being the most common. This type is from your body not having enough iron for your bone marrow to make hemoglobin to attach to red blood cells. Vitamin deficiency anemia is similar in that your body doesn’t have enough folate and/or vitamin B-12 to make red blood cells. Any disease that affects your bone marrow can inhibit the production of red blood cells. Chronic diseases, such as cancer, HIV/AIDS, kidney problems or inflammatory diseases, can also affect red blood cell production. Aplastic anemia, rare and life-threatening form, is when your body doesn’t produce enough red blood cells because of an infection, certain medications, autoimmune disorders or exposure to toxic chemicals. Hemolytic anemia is when red blood cells are destroyed faster than they can be replaced. Sickle cell anemia is an inherited condition that causes some of your red blood cells to form a sickle shape due to defective hemoglobin. Due to their abnormal shape, they die prematurely and this results in a shortage of red blood cells that can transport oxygen.
The symptoms of anemia are related to the decreased amount of oxygen that is present in your body. Most often, people complain of fatigue, weakness, pale/yellowish skin, shortness of breath, dizziness/lightheadedness, irregular heartbeats, chest pain, cold hands/feet and headaches. Usually symptoms are more noticeable the worse anemia becomes. If it isn’t treated, it can cause serious health problems and lead to death.
Treatment for anemia is dependent on the cause. Typically, most anemias, if they are severe, require blood transfusions to increase your levels of red blood cells. Once you are stabilized, your doctor will look for the cause in order to prevent you from becoming anemic in the future. For iron deficiency anemia, this means taking iron supplements and changing diet to increase sources of iron-rich foods. For vitamin deficiency anemia, this means taking supplements of folic acid and vitamin B-12 along with increasing dietary intake. For anemias caused by diseases or chronic conditions, the main form of treatment is to take care of the disease/condition. Aplastic anemia may require a bone marrow transplant to replace diseased portions that aren’t functioning properly. Hemolytic anemias are treated by avoiding medications that cause it, treating any infections and taking drugs to suppress your immune system (sometimes it attacks your red blood cells and destroys them). Sickle cell anemia is cared for by administering oxygen, providing pain medication and large amounts of fluids, particularly intravenous (IV), to prevent complications. Prompt treatment for any form of anemia is essential.
While certain types of anemia can’t be prevented, there are steps you can take to prevent some, such as iron deficiency or vitamin deficiency types. It is important to eat foods that are rich in these nutrients. Some examples of iron-rich foods include meat, beans, lentils, iron-fortified foods and dark green leafy vegetables. Folic acid is found in fruits and their juices, dark green leafy vegetables, peanuts and enriched grains products (breads, cereal, etc.). Vitamin B-12 can be found in meat, diary products and soy products. Vitamin C is important because helps to increase your body’s ability to absorb iron. It can be found in citrus and their juices, peppers, broccoli, tomatoes, melons and strawberries. If you don’t think that you are getting the proper nutrients from your diet, then you should ask your doctor about taking a multivitamin as a supplement. Another consideration is preventing your exposure to disease that can cause anemia. This includes not only the disease previously mentioned, but malaria as well. If you have an inherited type of anemia, it is a good idea to speak to a genetic counselor prior to having children in order to understand the risk of passing the disease to them.
Anemia is can be a serious, life threatening condition that without prompt treatment can result in grim outcomes. Now you have the knowledge you need to be aware of symptoms that can indicate that you have anemia and will be able to seek treatment if the need arises. If you have any questions or concerns about anemia, please speak with your doctor. If you would like more information, please visit the American Society of Hematology’s anemia page at http://www.hematology.org/Patients/Anemia/