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Anemia is when the body does not have enough healthy red blood cells (RBCs). The RBCs are the parts of the blood that carry oxygen throughout the body. A protein called hemoglobin allows the RBCs to absorb and release oxygen. Without enough RBCs or hemoglobin, the body doesn’t get enough oxygen. Symptoms of anemia may then occur.

Cross section of blood vessel with normal amounts of red blood cells. Below it is another cross section of blood vessel showing too few red blood cells because of anemia.

Symptoms of Anemia

Some people with anemia have no symptoms. But most people have symptoms that range from mild to severe. These can include:

  • Tiredness (fatigue)

  • Weakness

  • Pale skin

  • Shortness of breath

  • Dizziness or fainting

  • Rapid heartbeat

  • Trouble doing normal amounts of activity

  • Jaundice (yellowing of the eyes, skin, or mouth; dark urine)

Causes of Anemia

Anemia can occur when the body:

  • Loses too much blood

  • Does not make enough RBCs

  • Destroys the RBCs at a faster rate than it can replace them

  • Does not make a normal amount of hemoglobin in the RBCs

These problems can occur due to many reasons including:

  • A condition that a person is born with (congenital or inherited). This includes sickle cell disease or thalassemia.

  • Heavy bleeding for any reason, including injury, surgery, childbirth, or even heavy menstrual periods.

  • Being low in certain nutrients such as iron, folate, or vitamin B12. This may be due to poor diet. Or a condition like celiac disease or Crohn’s disease can cause poor absorption of the nutrients.

  • Exposure to certain medications, such as those used for chemotherapy

There are different types of anemia. Your doctor can tell you more about the type of anemia you have and what may have caused it.

Diagnosing Anemia

To diagnose anemia, blood tests are done. These tests can include:

  • Complete blood cell count (CBC). This test measures the amounts of the different types of blood cells.

  • Blood smear. This test checks the size and shape of the blood cells. To perform the test, a drop of blood is viewed under a microscope. A stain is used to make the blood cells easier to see.

  • Iron studies. These tests measure the amount of iron in the blood. Iron is needed to make hemoglobin in the RBCs.

  • Reticulocyte count. This test measures the amount of new RBCs being made by the bone marrow.

  • Hemoglobin electrophoresis. This test checks for problems with the hemoglobin in RBCs.

Treating Anemia

Treatment for anemia is based on the type of anemia, its cause, and the severity of your symptoms. Treatments may include:

  • Diet changes. This involves increasing the amount of certain nutrients in your diet, such as iron or folate. Your doctor may also prescribe nutrient supplements.

  • Medications. Certain medications treat the cause of the anemia. Others help build new RBCs or relieve symptoms. If a medication is the cause of your anemia, it may need to be stopped or changed.

  • Blood transfusions. Replacing some of the blood can increase the number of healthy RBCs in the body.

  • Surgery. In some cases, surgery can be done to treat the underlying cause of anemia. If surgery is needed, the doctor will explain the procedure and outline the risks and benefits for you.

Long-term Concerns

People with certain types of anemia can expect a full recovery after treatment. Other types of anemia (especially those a person is born with) need to be managed for life. Your doctor can tell you more.

© 2000-2011 Krames StayWell, 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.