Anemia

Published: April 15, 2010

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What Is It?

Hemoglobin is an iron-containing protein that is found within red blood cells. Using hemoglobin, the red blood cells are able to transport oxygen from the lungs, throughout the body.

With patients who suffer from anemia, the tissues do not receive enough oxygen. This occurs as a result of two possible reasons (1) there are not enough healthy red blood cells to transport oxygen from the lungs to throughout the body and (2) there is a hemoglobin deficiency.

A person with anemia will experience low energy levels. They may feel slightly fatigued, or they may be completely lethargic, depending on the extent of the condition.

The condition is common among women and patients who suffer from chronic diseases. Anemia can be a symptom of an underlying illness such as kidney failure, malnutrition, arthritis, or a bone marrow disorder.

The basic way that the body produces red blood cells (also known as hemoglobin) is by consuming iron, vitamins, and proteins from a diet that is enriched with vitamins and minerals. In the case that the body does not get enough of these vitamins and minerals, a person will feel fatigued since the body must work harder at carrying oxygen to tissues.

Types

Anemia can result from a variety of causes, and symptoms can range in severity. Classifications are based on morphology, underlying etiologic mechanisms, discernible clinical spectra, and more.

In general, anemia results from blood loss, blood cell destruction, nutrition deficiency, and insufficient red blood cell production. Other possible causes of anemia include pregnancy, rheumatoid arthritis, immune system problems, blood loss, kidney failure, and surgical complications.

Some types of anemia occur as a result of underlying genetic disorders. Sickle-cell anemia, for example, is an inheritable blood disorder that causes the red blood cells to become rigid and sickle-shaped. This type of red blood cell lacks flexibility and is unable to transport sufficient oxygen levels throughout the body.

Many people in Sub-Saharan Africa and tropical climates carry the gene as a natural safeguard against malaria. When you inherit one of these genes, you can actually increase your survival chances in areas with malaria.

People with two sickle-cell genes can become very sick, causing severe complications and even death. On average, people with sickle-cell anemia die before their 50th birthday. Women tend to live a little bit longer, until their mid-'40s. Sickle-cell anemia is less common in the United States.

Symptoms & Warning Signs

The main symptom of anemia is fatigue. In the beginning, symptoms may be mild, and if left untreated, the condition will worsen. A person who is anemic will feel cold, weak, dizzy, and irritable.

Other symptoms of anemia include shortness of breath, impaired memory, difficulty in swallowing, and chest pain. If you are anemic, you may notice that you suffer from malnutrition, even if you consume a healthy diet.

Children with anemia may experience unexplained weight loss, and they may have trouble focusing in school. Young anemia patients may experience fatigue that ranges in severity - they may be slightly fatigued or extremely lethargic.

Causes & Risk Factors

Anemia is caused by blood loss, insufficient production of red blood cells, and blood cell destruction. Iron deficiency, vitamin B12 and protein deficiency, bone marrow diseases, and intestinal problems can also cause symptoms. A woman's menstrual cycle or an injury might cause excessive blood loss. Cancers and infections can also lead to anemia. Other less common causes include genetic disorders such as kidney diseases and bone marrow problems.

Prevention & Treatment

Supplements and vitamins may help prevent and treat symptoms. A doctor might even put an individual on a diet that facilitates the production of healthy red blood cells. To avoid becoming anemic because of an unhealthy diet, it is advisable to eat foods that are rich in iron, vitamin B12, and foliate. Foods that include these necessary ingredients include beef, lentils, and dark vegetables. In the case of blood loss, a blood transfusion is necessary.

Tests & Diagnosis

A set of tests can help diagnose anemia. Some common tests include blood smear tests, bone marrow tests, complete blood counts, and serum iron tests. The others measure transferrin levels and reticulocyte counts. Tests will vary based on what the doctor suspects to be the cause.

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