What is anemia?

Our body needs oxygen to survive, and our blood helps oxygen get to all parts of the body.  When you don’t have enough of a component of the blood called red blood cells or hemoglobin, this is called anemia, a common condition that affects millions of people worldwide. Some patients only find out they have anemia when they have routine tests done on an annual examination, in preparation for surgery or before donating blood.

ANEMIA is the lack of healthy red blood cells in the body. | photograph courtesy of 1MG

There are a few different reasons for having anemia. A common reason is not having enough iron. This is called iron deficiency anemia and can happen when:

  1. You have lost a large amount of blood. This can happen slowly over time or all of a sudden. It is the most common cause of iron deficiency anemia. Menstrual periods and pregnancy are common reasons. Bleeding can also come from tumors in the intestines or colon which bleed slowly and in small amounts, so it is not noticeable in your bowel movements.
  2. Your body cannot absorb enough iron from food. This can happen in conditions like celiac disease or after surgery of your stomach or intestines. Some medications can also interfere with iron absorption.
  3. You do not get enough iron in your food. This can happen if infants or those on restrictive diets do not get enough iron from food or supplements. Vegetarians who eliminate meat can develop iron deficiency anemia.

Other causes of anemia are:

  1. Deficiency in vitamins like B12 and folate
  2. Inherited causes — Thalassemia, sickle cell anemia
  3. Aplastic anemia — A rare condition where the body stops producing enough new blood cells
  4. Hemolytic anemia — Where red blood cells are destroyed faster than they can be produced
  5. Chronic kidney disease — This can affect how red blood cells are made.

Patients with anemia sometimes do not have any symptoms when the anemia is mild or when they have had it for a long time as a chronic illness. Those who do have symptoms might have the following:

  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Irritability
  • Pale skin
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Headaches
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Abnormal cravings that make them want to eat ice or substances like clay (a condition termed as “pica”)
  • “Restless legs syndrome,” where the legs feel like they need to keep moving, especially at night.

Unexplained or easy bruising

Anemia is diagnosed with a blood test called a complete blood count or CBC.  Depending on the CBC results and your other symptoms, your doctor will order other tests to determine the underlying cause of your anemia.

The treatment for anemia will depend on its type and severity. These include:

  • Blood transfusion in severe cases
  • Dietary changes to increase iron or vitamin intake
  • Iron or vitamin supplements as prescribed by your doctor
  • Treatment of other medical conditions contributing to anemia

Anemia is a manageable condition but it requires attention and care. While some types of anemia are not preventable, you can reduce your risk by eating a balanced diet with iron, vitamins and minerals and having regular medical check-ups.

MEDICATIONS can interfere with iron absorption. | photograph courtesy of unsplash/ kateryna-hliznitsova

If you suspect you have anemia, seek prompt medical advice and only take supplements upon the advice of your doctor.  With proper diagnosis and treatment, individuals with anemia can lead long, healthy and fulfilling lives.