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Anemia

Anemia is a condition in which the body does not have enough healthy red blood cells. Red blood cells provide oxygen to body tissues.

Different types of anemia include:

Causes

Although many parts of the body help make red blood cells, most of the work is done in the bone marrow. Bone marrow is the soft tissue in the center of bones that helps form all blood cells.

Healthy red blood cells last between 90 and 120 days. Parts of your body then remove old blood cells. A hormone called erythropoietin (epo) made in your kidneys signals your bone marrow to make more red blood cells.

Hemoglobin is the oxygen-carrying protein inside red blood cells. It gives red blood cells their color. People with anemia do not have enough hemoglobin.

The body needs certain vitamins, minerals, and nutrients to make enough red blood cells. Iron, vitamin B12, and folic acid are 3 of the most important ones. The body may not have enough of these nutrients due to:

  • Changes in the lining of the stomach or intestines affect how well nutrients are absorbed (for example, celiac disease)
  • Poor diet
  • Surgery that removes part of the stomach or intestines

Possible causes of anemia include:

  • Certain medicines
  • Destruction of red blood cells earlier than normal (which may be caused by immune system problems)
  • Long-term (chronic) diseases such as chronic kidney disease, cancer, ulcerative colitis, or rheumatoid arthritis
  • Some forms of anemia, such as thalassemia or sickle cell anemia, which can be inherited
  • Pregnancy
  • Problems with bone marrow such as lymphoma, leukemia, myelodysplasia, multiple myeloma, or aplastic anemia
  • Slow blood loss (for example, from heavy menstrual periods or stomach ulcers)
  • Sudden heavy blood loss

Symptoms

You may have no symptoms if the anemia is mild or if the problem develops slowly. Symptoms that may occur first include:

  • Feeling weak or tired more often than usual, or with exercise
  • Headaches
  • Problems concentrating or thinking

If the anemia gets worse, symptoms may include:

  • Blue color to the whites of the eyes
  • Brittle nails
  • Desire to eat ice or other non-food things (pica syndrome)
  • Lightheadedness when you stand up
  • Pale skin color
  • Shortness of breath with mild activity or even at rest
  • Sore tongue

Exams and Tests

The doctor will perform a physical examination, and may find:

  • A heart murmur
  • Low blood pressure, especially when you stand up
  • Pale skin
  • Rapid heart rate

Some types of anemia may cause other findings on a physical exam.

Blood tests used to diagnose some common types of anemia may include:

Other tests may be done to find medical problems that can cause anemia.

Treatment

Treatment should be directed at the cause of the anemia, and may include:

  • Blood transfusions
  • Corticosteroids or other medicines that suppress the immune system
  • Erythropoietin, a medicine that helps your bone marrow make more blood cells
  • Supplements of iron, vitamin B12, folic acid, or other vitamins and minerals

Possible Complications

Severe anemia can cause low oxygen levels in vital organs such as the heart, and can lead to a heart attack.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your health care provider if you have any symptoms of anemia or unusual bleeding.

References

Bunn HF. Approach to the anemias. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 25th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 158.

Marks PW. Approach to anemia in the adult and child. In: Hoffman R, Benz EJ Jr, Silberstein LE, Weitz JI, Anastasi J, eds. Hematology: Basic Principles and Practice. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2013:chap 32.

    • Red blood cells, elliptocytosis

      Red blood cells, elliptocytosis - illustration

      Elliptocytosis is a hereditary disorder of the red blood cells (RBCs). In this condition, the RBCs assume an elliptical shape, rather than the typical round shape.

      Red blood cells, elliptocytosis

      illustration

    • Red blood cells, spherocytosis

      Red blood cells, spherocytosis - illustration

      Spherocytosis is a hereditary disorder of the red blood cells (RBCs), which may be associated with a mild anemia. Typically, the affected RBCs are small, spherically shaped, and lack the light centers seen in normal, round RBCs.

      Red blood cells, spherocytosis

      illustration

    • Red blood cells, multiple sickle cells

      Red blood cells, multiple sickle cells - illustration

      Sickle cell anemia is an inherited disorder in which abnormal hemoglobin (the red pigment inside red blood cells) is produced. The abnormal hemoglobin causes red blood cells to assume a sickle shape, like the ones seen in this photomicrograph.

      Red blood cells, multiple sickle cells

      illustration

    • Ovalocytoses

      Ovalocytoses - illustration

      Red blood cells (RBCs) are normally round. In ovalocytosis, the cells are oval. Other conditions that produce abnormally shaped RBCs include spherocytosis and eliptocytosis.

      Ovalocytoses

      illustration

    • Red blood cells, sickle and pappenheimer

      Red blood cells, sickle and pappenheimer - illustration

      This photomicrograph of red blood cells (RBCs) shows both sickle-shaped and Pappenheimer bodies.

      Red blood cells, sickle and pappenheimer

      illustration

    • Red blood cells, target cells

      Red blood cells, target cells - illustration

      These abnormal red blood cells (RBCs) resemble targets. These cells are seen in association with some forms of anemia, and following the removal of the spleen (splenectomy).

      Red blood cells, target cells

      illustration

    • Hemoglobin

      Hemoglobin - illustration

      Hemoglobin is the most important component of red blood cells. It is composed of a protein called heme, which binds oxygen. In the lungs, oxygen is exchanged for carbon dioxide. Abnormalities of an individual's hemoglobin value can indicate defects in the normal balance between red blood cell production and destruction. Both low and high values can indicate disease states.

      Hemoglobin

      illustration

      • Red blood cells, elliptocytosis

        Red blood cells, elliptocytosis - illustration

        Elliptocytosis is a hereditary disorder of the red blood cells (RBCs). In this condition, the RBCs assume an elliptical shape, rather than the typical round shape.

        Red blood cells, elliptocytosis

        illustration

      • Red blood cells, spherocytosis

        Red blood cells, spherocytosis - illustration

        Spherocytosis is a hereditary disorder of the red blood cells (RBCs), which may be associated with a mild anemia. Typically, the affected RBCs are small, spherically shaped, and lack the light centers seen in normal, round RBCs.

        Red blood cells, spherocytosis

        illustration

      • Red blood cells, multiple sickle cells

        Red blood cells, multiple sickle cells - illustration

        Sickle cell anemia is an inherited disorder in which abnormal hemoglobin (the red pigment inside red blood cells) is produced. The abnormal hemoglobin causes red blood cells to assume a sickle shape, like the ones seen in this photomicrograph.

        Red blood cells, multiple sickle cells

        illustration

      • Ovalocytoses

        Ovalocytoses - illustration

        Red blood cells (RBCs) are normally round. In ovalocytosis, the cells are oval. Other conditions that produce abnormally shaped RBCs include spherocytosis and eliptocytosis.

        Ovalocytoses

        illustration

      • Red blood cells, sickle and pappenheimer

        Red blood cells, sickle and pappenheimer - illustration

        This photomicrograph of red blood cells (RBCs) shows both sickle-shaped and Pappenheimer bodies.

        Red blood cells, sickle and pappenheimer

        illustration

      • Red blood cells, target cells

        Red blood cells, target cells - illustration

        These abnormal red blood cells (RBCs) resemble targets. These cells are seen in association with some forms of anemia, and following the removal of the spleen (splenectomy).

        Red blood cells, target cells

        illustration

      • Hemoglobin

        Hemoglobin - illustration

        Hemoglobin is the most important component of red blood cells. It is composed of a protein called heme, which binds oxygen. In the lungs, oxygen is exchanged for carbon dioxide. Abnormalities of an individual's hemoglobin value can indicate defects in the normal balance between red blood cell production and destruction. Both low and high values can indicate disease states.

        Hemoglobin

        illustration

      A Closer Look

       

      Review Date: 2/1/2016

      Reviewed By: Todd Gersten, MD, Hematology/Oncology, Florida Cancer Specialists & Research Institute, Wellington, FL. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

      The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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