What is anemia?

Anemia is a general term for having too few red blood cells in the blood. Red blood cells carry oxygen and nutrients through the bloodstream to the body’s cells. The most important element of red blood cells is called hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is a protein that carries oxygen in the blood from the lungs to the body’s cells. Anemia occurs when the body is making too few healthy red blood cells; the body is losing blood (hemorrhage); or the body is destroying circulating red blood cells.

Anemia is a common blood disorder, affecting more than three million people in the United States (Source: Women's Health). Anemia can occur in all age groups and populations, but it primarily affects women of childbearing age because of the loss of blood during menstruation.

Anemia is a potentially serious condition that can be caused by a wide variety of diseases, disorders and conditions. These include:

  • Autoimmune diseases

  • Bleeding or hemorrhage

  • Chronic diseases

  • Inherited diseases

  • Malabsorption

  • Malignancy and treatments for malignancy, such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy

  • Nutritional deficiencies

  • Transfusion reaction

  • Trauma

Common symptoms of anemia include hypotension (low blood pressure) and unusually pale skin (pallor). Many symptoms of anemia are due to a reduced amount of hemoglobin. This results in inadequate delivery of oxygen to the body’s cells and symptoms that include:

  • Dizziness

  • Fainting

  • Fatigue

  • Palpitations

  • Shortness of breath

  • Weakness

Anemia and its symptoms can occur suddenly, such as when it is caused by hemorrhage, or anemia can develop gradually, such as in pernicious anemia (vitamin B12 deficiency).

Treatment of anemia involves diagnosing and treating its underlying cause. Some conditions can be successfully treated and cured, while others may require more intensive treatment. Treatment also depends on your age, general health status, medical history, and other factors. In some severe cases, treatment may include a blood transfusion.

Complications of severe anemia can be serious and life threatening. Complications can include shock and stroke. Underlying diseases, disorders or conditions of anemia can also cause critical complications. Seek prompt medical care if you have symptoms of anemia, such as mild dizziness or weakness, or if you have a low energy level and tire easily. Prompt diagnosis and treatment of anemia and its underlying cause reduces the risk of serious complications.

Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, has an unusual change in alertness, shortness of breath, chest pain, or bleeding symptoms, such as bleeding heavily from the rectum, bloody stools, or vomiting blood.


SYMPTOMS

What are the symptoms of anemia?

The symptoms of anemia are caused by an abnormally low number of red blood cells in the blood. Red blood cells contain the protein hemoglobin, which is vital to carrying oxygen to the body’s cells. Many symptoms of anemia are due to a general lack of oxygen that is available to the cells.

Your symptoms may also be caused by low blood pressure (hypotension), which is due to reduced... Read more about anemiasymptoms

CAUSES

What causes anemia?

Anemia is an abnormal condition in which there is a low number of red blood cells in the blood. Anemia can be caused by a variety of diseases, disorders and conditions.

Bleeding and hemorrhage

Bleeding is the most common cause of anemia. Severe, uncontrolled bleeding (hemorrhage), such as bleeding from ruptured esophageal varices, can rapidly lead to life-threatening an... Read more about anemiacauses

TREATMENTS

How is anemia treated?

Treatment plans for anemia are individualized to the severity of the condition, the underlying cause, coexisting diseases and complications, the patient’s age, and other factors. Treatment involves a multifaceted plan that addresses the underlying cause, such as iron deficiency or vitamin B12 deficiency. The underlying cause of these conditions also needs to be diagnosed and treated ... Read more about anemiatreatments

Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Annual Review Date: Aug 9, 2013 Copyright: © Copyright 2014 Health Grades, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Health Grades, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the HealthGrades User Agreement.

This Article is Filed Under: Heart, Blood and Circulation