Anemia: Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatment

Are you feeling especially tired and worn out lately? This complaint seems to be pretty common among people. But, it might not be just from working too much or dealing with excess stress. In fact, you might have too little oxygen reaching your vital organs, which can cause a variety of symptoms (including tiredness).

There are different types of anemia, which WebMD says is the most common blood disorder in the country affecting about 6-percent of the population. It can affect people of all ages in different ways. Let’s take a closer look at what anemia is and what to do about it…

What Does Anemia Mean?

In a nutshell, anemia means your red blood cell (RBC) count is too low and/or your hemoglobin (Hb) level is too low. As a result, there won’t be sufficient oxygen, which is carried by hemoglobin (an important protein in red blood cells) to power your major organs.

WebMD says there are actually more than 400 types of anemia that may or may not be caused by blood loss and can point to other underlying health issues. The symptoms can be mild enough to go unnoticed or can have a bigger impact on day-to-day life.

What Defines Anemia?

Definitions of anemia are different for men and women, and cut-off levels for Hb vary, depending on guidelines (your physician is well versed on these levels and can best sort this out, regardless of the numbers presented here). In men, it’s typically defined as having a hemoglobin level of less than 13.5-grams/deciliter (g/dL). Meanwhile, in women, it says that anemia is considered a Hb of less than or equal to 12-g/dL.

Medicine Net says that normal Hb levels for adult males are 14 to 18-g/dL. A deciliter is equivalent to 100-mL. In men, they drop to 12.4 to 14.9-g/dL after middle age. In contrast, normal Hb levels for women are 12 to 16-g/dL, which drops to 11.7 to 13.8-g/dL after middle age. Newborns (that can be affected by anemia) should have Hb levels of 17 to 22-g/dL.

Possible Causes of Anemia

Everyday Health outlines the common types of anemia and their different causes. The most common type is iron deficiency anemia, “which is the most common and widespread nutritional disorder in the world.” Anemia of chronic disease is the second most common form. It is caused by a long-term health condition (or treatment) impacting the body’s ability to produce red blood cells.

Furthermore, sickle cell anemia is an inherited form of the disorder that produces “a defective form of hemoglobin” and can also be painful (as it can block blood flow to limbs and organs).

Aplastic anemia (AA) is rarer and is due to the bone marrow not producing enough red blood cells. There are only about 600 to 900 cases of AA in the U.S. per year. It most often affects men and women between the ages of 20 and 25 and those over age 60. Meanwhile, pernicious anemia is an autoimmune disorder characterized by antibodies that affect the absorption of vitamin B12.

Anemia Symptoms

Everyday Health explains that depending on the form of anemia you have, you might experience different symptoms, which can get worse over time. However, it notes the most common symptom is fatigue (tiredness)/weakness. Other symptoms of iron deficiency anemia include pale skin, shortness of breath, dizziness, cold hands/feet, brittle nails, and loss of appetite (which is mainly seen in younger patients).

AA can be marked by nausea and skin rashes, while sickle cell anemia can have signs such as jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes) and “painful” swelling of the hands and feet.

Furthermore, pernicious anemia, which is related to the lack of B12, can lead to tingling in the hands and feet, loss of balance, weakened bones, and even memory loss. In infants, a vitamin B12 deficiency can show up as poor reflexes, trouble feeding, and irritability. It may even cause growth issues if left untreated in the pediatric population.

How Is Anemia Diagnosed?

Determining whether you’re anemic is usually a blend of a physical exam, some questions about your family health history, and a blood test, notes Mayo Clinic. The doctor will order a complete blood count (CBC) to pinpoint the number of red blood cells in the sample, as well as the hemoglobin levels.

The source explains there will be another test to determine the size/shape of your red blood cells to see if there is anything unusual. If the doctor suspects anemia, there could be additional blood tests, such as a bone marrow biopsy to pinpoint the cause.

Treatment Options for Anemia

The Mayo Clinic explains that the treatment of anemia is specific to the cause. For example, iron deficiency anemia could be fixed by something as simple as taking iron supplements. This type of anemia could also be caused by loss of blood. If this is the case it needs to be pinpointed and surgical intervention might be needed.

Treating sickle cell anemia can involve administering oxygen, pain medications, antibiotics, and/or fluids through an IV. There’s also a medication called hydroxyurea (which was first used to treat cancer) that can also be effective for this form of anemia.

Meanwhile, aplastic anemia can be treated through blood transfusions or even a bone marrow transplant. While there’s no specific treatment for anemia of chronic disease, the source says an injection of synthetic hormones may help stimulate the production of red blood cells.

Can Anemia Be Prevented?

In some cases, anemia is not caused by factors you have control over, such as aplastic anemia. However, Everyday Health says, “Staying clear of insecticides, herbicides, organic solvents, paint removers, and other toxic chemicals may lower your risk.” With pernicious anemia, consuming higher amounts of vitamin B12 may help. You can achieve this through supplements/injections and by eating beef, eggs, and fortified cereal.

In cases of anemia from blood loss, a doctor may be able to pinpoint the reason as heavy menstruation(in women) or blood in the stool and address imbalances. While consuming more iron-rich foods (such as chicken, beans, and dark leafy veggies) and vitamin C (such as orange juice and strawberries) can help, the source warns against consuming coffee or tea with meals as they can impact your body’s ability to absorb iron. Calcium pills can also impact iron absorption.

Dr. Gerald Morris

Dr. Gerald Morris

Gerald Morris, MD is a family medicine/internal medicine physician with over 20 years expertise in the medical arena. Dr. Morris has spent time as a clinician, clinical research coordinator/manager, medical writer, and instructor. He is a proponent of patient education as a tool in the diagnosis and treatment of acute and chronic medical conditions.

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