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Health Center: Anemia
What is it?
Anemia is a condition in which there is a decrease in the number of red blood cells in the blood, or a decrease in the number of red blood cells that are carrying oxygen. Anemia is really not a disease in itself, but more a symptom of other problems.
What are the causes?
There are 3 main processes that can cause anemia:
- a decrease in the production of red blood cells
This is most commonly due to a poor diet in which iron and/or B vitamins and folate are lacking.
- an increase in the destruction of red blood cells
This can be a result of some infectious diseases, inherited blood disorders, or a response to a drug or toxin.
- bleeding (most commonly gastrointestinal bleeding, less commonly from excessive menstrual bleeding)
- inherited disorders, such as thalassemia
What are the symptoms?
This is usually the initial symptom. Fatigue will persist despite any amount of rest, or will recur out of proportion to level of activity. As the anemia progresses, other symptoms may appear:
- shortness of breath
- rapid heart rate
- chest pain
- unusual muscle fatigue
Most of these symptoms are attributable to the lack of oxygen being delivered to major organs, such as the brain and heart, as well as skeletal muscle tissue.
How is anemia diagnosed?
Anemia can be diagnosed with a simple blood test called a complete blood count (or CBC). This will give information to your provider about what your red blood cells look like (size and color), how many there are, and also about the levels of the different types of white blood cells (WBCs). Although white blood cells do not carry oxygen, abnormal levels can be indicative of infection, inflammation, or allergic reactions. This information can give clues to the cause of the anemia.
Another test that may be done is a ferritin level. Ferritin is stored iron, as opposed to circulating serum iron. Think of ferritin as “money in the bank”. If your CBC does not indicate anemia, but your ferritin level is low, that can be a warning that you are at risk for becoming anemic. Ferritin levels can take much longer to replenish than correcting frank anemia.
How is anemia treated?
The treatment will depend on the cause of the anemia. Most commonly, in the case of dietary deficiency, iron supplementation is used to correct anemia and replenish iron stores, if necessary. But because excess iron can be very harmful, be sure to have the appropriate lab work done before assuming that iron deficiency is the problem.
- Get as much rest as possible. Your body needs the time and energy to re-build and repair itself.
- Keep well-hydrated. Anemia can cause your heart to work harder to make up for the lack of oxygenated red blood cells. Dehydration only increases the amount of work needed to pump blood through your body.
- Eat a diet with an ample supply of iron and protein.
For more information see: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/anemia/DS00321
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