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Anemia is a common blood disorder caused by any number of factors, including iron deficiency, vitamin deficiency, pregnancy, infection, autoimmune disorders, genetics, chronic disease, chemotherapy, or congenital abnormalities. Depending on the type you’re diagnosed with, anemia causes the reduction in the amount or dysfunction of red blood cells in your body.
Red blood cells are essential because they carry hemoglobin, an iron-rich protein that attaches to oxygen in your lungs and helps distribute that oxygen to the rest of the body. Typically, anemia causes multiple symptoms, including:
- Fast or irregular heartbeat
- Pounding in ears
- Chest pain
- Cold hands or feet
- Pale or yellow skin
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Severe anemia types can cause more serious complications, including bleeding, vision loss, infection, chronic pain, hand-foot syndrome, deep vein thrombosis, pulmonary embolism, neurological symptoms, nerve damage, and digestive tract issues.
Women who are menstruating or pregnant are most at risk for developing anemia, but infection, chronic illness, or poor diet can put others at an increased risk. Your age and physical activity level can also put you at risk of anemia. Infants between the ages of 1 and 2 along with older adults are at high risk for anemia, as are those who engage in vigorous sports, such as jogging and basketball, which can cause red blood cells to break down in the bloodstream.
Some forms of anemia can be easily treated with dietary supplements while others require long-term and more aggressive treatment to cure or manage the condition.
Common Types of Anemia
There are over 400 types of anemia, with many of them having different causes, treatments, and outlooks. Medical professionals typically define anemia types into three categories: anemia caused by blood loss, anemia caused by decreased or dysfunctional red blood cell production, and anemia caused by the destruction of red blood cells.
Below are the most common types of anemia:
- Iron-deficiency anemia: The most common type of anemia, it can occur when you don’t have enough iron in your body or if your body doesn’t absorb enough iron to function properly. In addition to the causes listed above, too much calcium in the diet and gastric bypass surgery can also cause people to develop iron-deficiency anemia.
- Vitamin-deficiency anemia: Poor absorption of vitamin B12 due to the lack of animal products in the diet, genetic defects, or taking certain medications (such as PPIs, H2 blockers, and metaformin) can cause pernicious anemia to develop. Without enough vitamin B12, the body produces abnormally large red blood cells called marocytes, which move slowly through the bloodstream, thus depriving the body’s tissues of oxygen. A folate (vitamin B9) deficiency can also cause marocytes to develop.
- Aplastic anemia: This rare disorder occurs when the bone marrow isn’t producing enough blood cells due to the immune system attacking the marrow’s stem cells. Aplastic anemia causes include viral infection, pregnancy, and exposure to toxic chemicals or ionizing radiation.
- Hemolytic anemia: This condition destroys red blood cells in the bloodstream earlier than their normal lifespan. It can be inherited or it can develop on its own for unknown reasons. Hemolytic anemia can be either mild or severe. Sickle cell disease, a group of inherited disorders that causes red blood cells to become hard, sticky, and shaped like a sickle, is one type of hemolytic anemia. The most severe form of sickle cell disease is HbSS, which is commonly known as sickle cell anemia. Other types of hemolytic anemia include thalassemias, hereditary spherocytosis, and hereditary elliptocytosis.
Anemia Causes Determine the Treatment
Anemia is diagnosed with a combination of blood tests that measure the amount of iron found in the body. Your doctor may check your levels with one or more of the following tests:
- Complete blood count (measures hemoglobin and hemocrit concentration)
- Fasting serum iron
- Total iron-binding capacity (or TIBC) or unbound-iron binding capacity (UIBC)
- Serum ferritin
The treatment plan for managing anemia depends on its type and severity. While some mild forms of anemia require no treatment at all, other types may require long-term treatment and even surgery.
Iron-deficiency and vitamin-deficiency anemia is treated mainly through diet and supplements to restore or aid the body in absorbing missing nutrients. Aplastic and hemolytic anemia, however, may require more aggressive treatment, depending on the severity. While the treatments below don’t often cure the disorder, they are used to increase red blood cell count, reduce or stop red blood cell destruction, and/or manage symptoms:
- Blood transfusion
- Stem cell transplant
- Bone marrow stimulation
- Antibiotics and/or antivirals
- Plasmapheresis (a procedure that removes antibodies from the blood)
- Lifestyle changes, such as avoiding cold temperatures
Tips for Anemia Prevention
While some forms of anemia are genetic or occur for reasons beyond our control, there are still actions you can take to protect yourself. If you’re diagnosed with an iron deficiency, even if your doctor tells you that you’re not anemic, it’s important that you increase your iron intake.
Diet will play an important role in increasing your iron intake. If you eat red meat, make sure you’re consuming at least one to two servings of meat, poultry, or fish a day. If you’re a vegetarian or vegan, you should be eating at least four servings of iron-rich grains, beans, peas, and lentils each day. You’ll also want to increase your vitamin C intake because it aids in iron absorption. But avoid calcium, fiber, phytic acid, polyphenols, coffee, and alcohol because they can inhibit iron absorption.
Iron supplements may also be recommended, but if you experience any side effects, such as nausea, stomach pain, constipation, or diarrhea, consult your doctor. For more information on how to increase your iron intake, check out our “9 Iron Deficiency Symptoms You Can Identify Yourself” article.