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 know about the blood that is in your body. Many components make up blood, but the main one related to anemia is red blood cells because they contain a protein, called hemoglobin, that carries oxygen and nutrients to all 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 create red blood cells, your body needs sufficient amounts of iron, vitamin B-12, folate, and other nutrients from the foods 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 primary reasons this occurs: your body doesn’t make enough red blood cells, your body destroys red blood cells faster than it can generate new ones, or you have bleeding that causes you to lose a large number 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. With this type, your body doesn’t have 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 (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 conditions, can also affect red blood cell production. Aplastic anemia, a 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, resulting in a shortage of red blood cells that can transport oxygen.
The symptoms of anemia are related to the decreased amount of oxygen present in your body. People often 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 the anemia becomes. If it isn’t treated, it can cause serious health problems and death.
Treatment for anemia is dependent on the cause. If severe, most require blood transfusions to increase your levels of red blood cells. Once you’re stabilized, your doctor will look for the cause to prevent you from becoming anemic in the future. For iron deficiency anemia, this means taking iron supplements and changing your diet to increase sources of iron-rich foods. With vitamin deficiency anemia, you’ll need to take folic acid supplements and increase your dietary intake. If your anemia results from chronic conditions, the treatment is to manage the disease to the best of your ability. Aplastic anemia may require a bone marrow transplant to replace diseased portions that aren’t functioning correctly. 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, you can take steps to avoid some kinds, such as iron deficiency or vitamin deficiency types. It’s essential to eat foods that are rich in these nutrients. 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 is in meat, dairy products, and soy products. Vitamin C is important because it 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 you are getting the proper nutrients from your diet, you should ask your doctor about taking a multivitamin as a supplement. Another consideration is preventing your exposure to diseases that can cause anemia. This includes not only the conditions previously mentioned but malaria as well. If you have an inherited type of anemia, it’s a good idea to speak to a genetic counselor before having children to understand the risk of passing the disease to them.
Anemia can be a severe and life-threatening condition resulting in grim outcomes without prompt treatment. Now you have the knowledge needed to be aware of symptoms that can indicate that you have anemia, so you’ll 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/