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Symptoms and treatment

Anemia is a blood disorder involving a reduced number of red blood cells. These cells are needed to carry oxygen to the blood and keep the body functioning efficiently. There are different types of anemia, which can range from mild to severe. There are also many causes, and these are broken down into three categories: blood loss, decreased red blood cell production and excessive destruction of the cells.

One of the most common types of anemia is caused by iron deficiency. This is often caused by certain cancer treatments, an enlarged spleen, nosebleeds, hemorrhoids or any other excessive bleeding. Women are more prone to this type, especially women who have very heavy periods. There is a variety of birth control medications which can help reduce the flow and frequency of periods. Adding iron-rich foods to the diet is one way to treat iron deficiency anemia. These foods include red meat, liver, fish, beans and spinach. However, an iron supplement (in pill or liquid form) may still be needed.

There are many different types of anemia, including:

  • Pernicious anemia is caused by the body's inability to absorb vitamin B12. It can be severe and potentially fatal.
  • Aplastic anemia is caused by a shutdown in the bone marrow, which results in a drop in red blood cells, white cells and platelets. Some causes are autoimmune disorders, chemotherapy and certain toxins. This type will quickly cause death if not treated immediately, and a bone marrow transplant may be required.
  • Sickle-cell anemia involves the presence of abnormally shaped red blood cells (sometimes teardrop shaped), as well as an abnormal form of hemoglobin. It's found almost exclusively in people of African descent and can cause damage to the organs and bones. It can be worsened by strenuous exercise or high altitudes. Sickle-cell can be treated and controlled with a drug called hydroxyurea.
  • Hemolytic anemia is caused by an autoimmune system malfunction where, basically, the body attacks its own red blood cells. This is more common in people with other autoimmune disorders, such as lupus. The resulting cell destruction can be sudden or gradual.
  • Symptoms

    Symptoms of anemia include fatigue, shortness of breath, weakness, dizziness, headaches and sensitivity to cold air. Bleeding or bruising easily is another symptom, although this could also be caused by a low platelet count.

    A primary care physician can diagnose anemia by performing a complete blood count (CBC). This evaluates all of the blood's components, including red and white blood cells and hemoglobin, which is the substance that enables the cells to carry oxygen. The doctor can determine the cause of anemia from the number, shape and size of the cells. One might be referred to a hematologist, a physician who specializes in blood disorders.

    There are many good resources for learning more about anemia online, as well as in print. WebMD is a very informative website and is easy to understand. Medical manuals such as The Duke Encyclopedia of New Medicine and The Merck Manual of Medical Information can also be helpful.

    By Tamma Ocain

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