Anemia is one of the most common health conditions. It is the deficiency of red blood cells in the blood or the deficiency of the iron compound called hemoglobin in the blood. Poor diet, sustained prolonged blood loss or some congenital defects may lead to anemia. The mild cases can be treated with dietary adaptations while blood transfusion and medication may be necessary for the more serious cases. In most cases, dietary supplements and iron rich foods are necessary. Anemia weakens the system, thereby making you far more vulnerable to a number of infections.

Anemia is a condition where there are insufficient red blood cells in your body. Blood consists of a number of components. The liquid part is called the plasma while the cellular part contains a number of different cells. Of them, one type of cell is called red blood cells. They contain a compound called hemoglobin. It is primarily an iron compound. It carries oxygen from your lungs to the rest of the body. It is red in color. The red hemoglobin imparts red color to these blood cells and hence the name. A healthy red blood cell lives from 90 to 120 days before it dies and new cells are created. Many organs work to create red blood cells, but the major work is done in the soft spongy tissues of the bone marrow.

If enough number of red blood cells is not being created, if they are immature, if they are dying off faster, if they carry less hemoglobin or they are malformed, then you have anemia. Depending on the various cases, a number of different types of anemia have been identified.

Signs and symptoms of anemia

No matter whether you have acute case or mild anemia, there are some common signs and symptoms. These are:

  • Weakness and fatigue often unexplained and unrelated to activity is felt. You will notice a marked decrease in your energy and stamina.
  • You will also find it difficult to concentrate or carry out tasks that are mentally taxing.
  • Headaches and irritability are common.
  • If anemia becomes acute, a number of symptoms are observed. Unnatural pallor of skin is one of the conditions that can be quickly noticed.
  • Nails become brittle.
  • You feel lightheaded, especially if you stand up suddenly.
  • You feel short of breath and your tongue feels sore.
  • In severe cases, heart murmur, palpitations, angina and bounding pulse are seen.
  • In certain types of anemia, there may be jaundice or bone deformities.

Prevalence of anemia

Anemia in its mild form is very widespread while severe cases are also not very small in number. The following table will help you to understand:

Percentage of children between 1 – 2 years with anemia 14%
Percentage of children between 3 – 5 years with anemia 4%
Number of annual deaths from anemia 4852
Average number of anemia related deaths per 100000 of population 1.6
Prevalence rate of anemia in USA 1.29%

How to check for anemia

Before checking for anemia, it is necessary to know the normal level. These are as follows:

Normal hemoglobin levels: Adult male 13.5 – 17 g/dl
Adult female 12 – 15 g/dl
Newborn 14 – 24 g/dl
Children 11 – 16 g/dl
Pregnant women 11 – 12 g/dl
Normal RBC levels (million cells per micro liters of blood) Adult male 4.2 – 5.4 million /uL
Adult female 4.7 – 6.1 million/uL
Children 4.6 – 4.8 million /uL

If the values fall below the threshold, a person can be said to be suffering from anemia.
There are a number of diagnostic tests to check for anemia. These are:

  1. Complete blood count
  2. Red blood cell count
  3. Reticulocyte count
  4. Blood levels of iron, hemoglobin, vitamin B12 and folic acid
  5. If the cause is not obvious or the test results for the above are not conclusive, other tests are used. They include ESR, serum iron, ferritin, serum vitamin B12, hemoglobin electrophoresis, renal function etc.

Causes of anemia

Anemia is caused if red blood cells are not properly produced in the body. There can be a number of different causes ranging from poor diet to inherited conditions. Accordingly, a number of different types of anemia are recognized.
The main causes are as follows:

  1. Slow sustained bleeding can cause anemia. This may happen in following ways:
    • Through gastrointestinal ulcers
    • Excessive bleeding during menstruation and childbirth
    • Excessive use of NSAIDs and anti inflammatory drugs which causes gastric ulcers.
  2. Anemia can also be caused by deficiencies. These are:
    • Deficiency of iron in diet or due to too frequent blood donation or endurance training
    • Deficiency of vitamin B12 and folate, especially during pregnancy
  3. Defects in the stem cells may prevent the normal production of the red blood cells.
    • When stem cells are very few in number or almost absent, it gives rise to aplastic anemia
    • If the RBC is immature or deformed, it is thalassemia.
  4. Finally, too much destruction of red blood cells can also cause anemia. These occur in following ways:
    • Immune system attacks the cells. This is hemolytic anemia.
    • Toxins from disease of liver or kidney
    • Inherited conditions
    • Stressors from venom, infections or certain foods.
    • Mechanical trauma from malaria, surgery etc.

Treatment of anemia

Unless you are born with a congenital defect, it is possible to completely cure anemia with proper diet, regulated lifestyle and supplements. The common treatment options are as follows:

  • Oral iron supplements are prescribed.
  • If this is not sufficient, the doctor can prescribe blood transfusion. An aggressive transfusion strategy often helps in anemia. If transfusion is not possible, hyperbaric oxygen is given to deliver the oxygen directly to the tissues.
  • Erythropoietin stimulating substance (ESA) is given to encourage the stem cells to produce more red blood cells.