Anemia occurs when the blood has a decreased number of red blood cells. This in turn can decrease the ability of the blood to carry oxygen for the body. It is estimated that over 3.5 million people suffer from anemia. That is about 1 in 77 people in the United States alone. It most commonly affects women of childbearing age and young children. However, anemia can affect anyone depending on their health and nutritional status. This article will help you understand what anemia is and how it is treated.
What Is Anemia?
Anemia, or low red blood cells, occurs when there is not enough red blood cells to carry oxygen throughout the body. There is a protein in the red blood cells called, hemoglobin. When the hemoglobin is low, the red blood cells cannot bind the oxygen from your lungs and take it to where it needs to go.
Symptoms Of Anemia
Initially the symptoms of anemia may not be present but as the hemoglobin level drops, symptoms become noticeable and can include:
Pallor (Pale skin)
Fatigue or Exhaustion
Shortness of Breath
Abnormal or Fast Heartbeat
Difficulty thinking Clearly
Cold Hands and feet
Many of the above symptoms can be mistaken for other conditions. It is important that if you experience any of the above to see your doctor. Some cases of anemia are caused by internal bleeding and treating yourself at home may not be safe.
There are several types of anemia, but only 3 causes. These include:
Blood Loss Blood loss can be due to trauma (accident, surgery, and cut’s to the body), childbirth, or monthly periods in women. It can be a one-time occurrence or chronic. Many women with heavy periods suffer from chronic anemia. Both men and women can have chronic blood loss from the intestines, which can overtime cause anemia.
Reduced Production of Red Blood Cells Dietary deficiencies and genetic conditions can cause the body to have a slow rate of red blood cell production. Deficiencies of vitamin B12 or folic acid are two very common causes. Reduced production can also be caused by cancer or kidney disease. Aplastic anemia, pregnancy, and hormonal shifts can also slow down the production.
Fast Destruction of Red Blood Cells (Hemolytic Anemias) It is normal for red blood cells to “die off” and new ones regenerate on a daily basis. There are certain conditions where blood cells “die off” before they are replaced. Sickle cell anemia, thalassemia, and diseases of the spleen are examples.
Risk Factors for Anemia
Women who are in their childbearing years have the highest risk for anemia. This is because some women bleed heavily during monthly cycles. Anemia rates are also very high during the first two trimesters (6 months) of pregnancy when the liquid portion of blood increases very quickly and the blood cells are essentially diluted.
Babies do not produce iron quickly enough and most of their iron stores in the first few months come from their mother. They need to be fed iron fortified formula or mom needs adequate iron in her diet if breastfeeding. Cow’s milk does not provide enough iron for babies up to 2 years of age and puts them at risk for anemia.
Risk factors for other types of anemia include:
Surgery. Blood loss.
Trauma. Blood loss.
Low dietary intake of iron.
Genetic disorders in family. Sickle cell anemia, thalassemia.
Diseases that cause anemia. Kidney disease, cancer, diabetes, liver disease)
Long-term infections in the body
If you have symptoms or risk factors for anemia, you will need to see your doctor who will take a thorough medical and family history. If you do not have symptoms of anemia but are at risk, your doctor may test during a routine physical. Pregnant women and infants are routinely checked.
The doctor will do a physical examination and check your pulse for a fast heart rate, watch your breathing for rapid breaths, feel your liver and spleen for enlargement, and check for skin pallor. Sometimes, anemia can be caused by blood losses in the digestive tract so they may perform a rectal test for blood.
You most likely will have a blood workup to check for the number of red blood cells and amount of hemoglobin in the blood. This can almost always give a positive diagnosis of anemia. Depending your history and physical, these test can include:
There may be more testing performed to find the source of the anemia if the above results are inconclusive for the cause. These may include scoping the digestive tract to look for bleeding and a bone marrow biopsy. You may also be tested for kidney disease.
Once anemia is diagnosed, your doctor will determine the best treatment based on what is causing the anemia.
Blood Loss Stop bleeding and giving blood transfusions. Since blood is rich in iron, an essential component of hemoglobin, iron replacement is also given.
Iron Deficiency Treatment is aimed at correcting the deficiency. Mild cases are usually treated with diet and moderate cases are treated with iron supplementation. This should be carefully monitored because taking iron supplements in large amounts can be toxic.
If the problem lies with another vitamin deficiency, those vitamins will be replaced such as vitamin C, vitamin B12, and folic acid.
Chronic Disease The underlying disease that is causing the anemia must be brought under control. Short-term treatments include blood transfusions (in liver and kidney disease), and erythropoietin (Epogen) injections that can stimulate the bone marrow to make more red blood cells.
Bone Marrow Disorders Bone marrow helps to make red blood cells. A bone marrow transplant may be needed.
Hemolytic Anemia These can be controlled by stopping the processes in the body that are damaging red blood cells. This includes suppressing the immune response, removing the spleen, or cleaning the blood with plasmapheresis. In severe cases of thalassemia or sickle cell disease, blood transfusions may be given.
Anemia should always be evaluated and diagnosed by a doctor. In milder cases, the doctor may allow you to try certain home remedies to help bring up your iron stores. These include:
Including beans, iron enriched breads and cereals, spinach and lean meats
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