The blood plays an important role in overall health. One of the many functions of blood is to carry oxygen from the lungs to the body’s tissues. It accomplishes this via red blood cells, which contain an iron-rich protein called hemoglobin. This protein attaches to oxygen in the lungs and then carries it to the rest of the body. Red blood cells also return carbon dioxide from throughout the body to the lungs so it can be exhaled. When people do not have enough healthy red blood cells, they have a hematologic condition known as anemia.
According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, anemia is the most common blood disorder in the United States, affecting more than three million Americans. If left untreated, anemia can lead to several concerning health problems. This makes recognizing anemia symptoms critical.
At Regional Cancer Care Associates (RCCA), the team of dedicated hematologists and oncologists have the knowledge and experience to treat both benign blood disorders, including anemia, and cancers of the blood and blood-forming tissues, such as leukemia and lymphoma. Here, they explore what anemia is, what causes it, common anemia symptoms, various treatment options, and how people in New Jersey, Connecticut, Maryland, and the Washington, DC, area can receive expert care at RCCA.
Anemia is a hematologic condition that occurs when a person produces a lower-than-normal amount of healthy red blood cells, or when the body prematurely destroys red blood cells. When this happens, the body does not get enough oxygen-rich blood.
Anemia can occur for several reasons. The condition can be present from birth or emerge at any age. The causes of anemia include:
Many types of anemia exist. The different types of anemia are linked to various diseases and conditions that cause them. Following a thorough history, physical examination and blood work, a person may be diagnosed with one of the following types of anemia:
This is the most common type of anemia, and it occurs when there is an insufficient amount of iron in the body. Iron is a necessary element for the production of hemoglobin. Iron deficiency can be the result of diet, blood loss, or the body’s inability to absorb iron efficiently.
Iron- deficiency anemia is found in people who are pregnant, as well as in people with ulcers, stomach lining inflammation, cancer, or heavy menstrual bleeding. Additionally, individuals not consuming the recommended amount of iron in their diet are at a higher risk of developing this type of anemia.
Sickle cell anemia is an inherited hemolytic condition that involves an abnormality in the hemoglobin protein, resulting in red blood cells becoming misshapen (sickle-shaped). Red blood cells die quickly due to this abnormality, causing patients to consistently experience dangerously low levels.
Folate and vitamin B-12 are necessary elements for the production of healthy red blood cells. The body does not make vitamin B-12; it must be acquired from foods or supplements. When the body cannot make enough healthy red blood cells because of low levels of folate and vitamin B-12 (usually due to poor dietary intake), vitamin deficiency anemia can develop.
Hemolytic anemia is a hematologic condition in which the body is unable to produce red blood cells at the same rate that it destroys them. The destruction of red blood cells is called hemolysis. Parents can pass the gene for this condition on to their children, or individuals can develop the condition later in life. Beyond genetic causes, hemolytic anemia can be the result of infections, some autoimmune disorders, and other causes.
The symptoms that people with anemia experience depend on the cause, specific nature, and severity of their anemia. Mild anemia often does not cause any noticeable symptoms. If the condition progresses, symptoms are likely to worsen. The most notable signs and symptoms of anemia include:
The body requires a steady flow of oxygen, which it receives from red blood cells. Anemia disrupts this process, commonly causing weakness and fatigue due to insufficient oxygen levels. Patients with anemia may wake up feeling lethargic even after a good night’s rest. The lack of oxygen can also lead to cold hands and feet.
Oxygen is essential to every cellular process, including producing a healthy complexion. Deficient oxygen levels due to anemia can cause changes in appearance.
Skin paleness, or pallor, involves the skin displaying a lighter-than-normal shade. While pallor is most commonly associated with the face, it can also manifest itself in very light or white nail beds. Pallor can also be evident in the lips, gums, and tongue. Without enough hemoglobin and oxygen due to anemia, the skin can turn pale. Other visual cues of anemia can be abnormalities such as upwardly or inwardly curved nails, or nails marked by raised ridges and brittleness.
With an insufficient amount of red blood cells to transport oxygen, people with anemia can experience shortness of breath. The body relies on a process of consistently exchanging carbon dioxide for oxygen. Anemia disrupts this process, resulting in patients becoming winded much more easily when exerting energy.
Much like many other conditions that make it difficult to breathe normally, shortness of breath associated with anemia tends to worsen at night. Simply lying down can make it harder to breathe. This is because lying down puts additional pressure on the diaphragm, requiring more effort for each breath.
If anemia is left untreated or is not well managed, shortness of breath is likely to worsen and can potentially lead to other serious health concerns. Continuously experiencing shortness of breath for an extended period can contribute to an increase in heart rate, an irregular heartbeat, chest pain, and other conditions.
Low levels of hemoglobin affect all areas of the body, including the brain. Without sufficient hemoglobin and oxygen, blood vessels swell, and blood pressure drops. This can result in headaches and other neurological issues, such as dizziness, trouble focusing, and vertigo.
The appropriate course of action for treating anemia depends on the type and cause of the condition. Physicians will evaluate a patient’s situation and conduct tests to determine the correct treatment plan. Some patients may require infusion therapy to receive intravenous iron.
The goals of treatment can vary based on each patient’s situation, but they generally include:
When providing treatment, physicians may take the following approaches:
A physician may prescribe medicines to treat anemia. These medicines may be administered to help a patient’s bone marrow produce more red blood cells. If a patient’s anemia is caused by an autoimmune disease, physicians may prescribe medication to suppress the immune system. Physicians may also recommend over-the-counter or prescription supplements to treat anemia.
Iron deficiency anemia may result from inadequate dietary intake of iron or from an inability to absorb vitamins in the gastrointestinal tract. To address these issues, a clinician may recommend iron supplements, which can increase iron levels in the body. These supplements are strictly for individuals with iron deficiency and should not be taken unless directed, as too much iron can damage the body’s organs.
Anemia often is caused by a lack of essential vitamins. While iron deficiency is a major cause of developing anemia, low levels of vitamins A, B12, C, and E; folic acid; and riboflavin can also contribute. Vitamin supplements can be prescribed to help correct vitamin and mineral deficiencies that lead to the development of anemia.
Erythropoietin is a hormone produced in the body, mostly by the kidneys. It stimulates the bone marrow to produce red blood cells. When the body does not produce enough of the hormone, anemia can develop. A medication called epoetin alfa, created through recombinant DNA technology, imitates the action of erythropoietin, stimulating the body to produce more red blood cells.
If symptoms become severe, physicians may take a more aggressive approach when treating anemia.
A blood transfusion is a safe medical procedure used to treat different types of anemia. During this procedure, patients receive healthy blood through an intravenous (IV) line that is inserted into one of their blood vessels. Blood transfusions are an effective treatment option for patients who have lost blood through surgery or injury, or when the body is not producing blood properly. Blood transfusion procedures generally take one to four hours to complete. Patients are monitored throughout the entirety of the procedure.
After a physician determines whether a patient with anemia is a good candidate for a blood transfusion, the health care professional will test the patient’s blood to make sure the blood being infused is a good match. All blood donated for transfusions is carefully tested, handled, and stored.
While most cases of iron deficiency anemia are treated with oral iron supplements and dietary changes, patients with very low iron levels and those how need rapid correction of their iron deficiency (because of an impending surgery or other reason) may have an intravenous infusion of iron.
A poor diet is one of the main reasons why people develop anemia. Because of this, following a balanced, healthy diet rich in essential nutrients is an effective complementary approach to treating anemia.
Anemia generally is a manageable disorder. However, if left untreated, it can lead to several serious complications. People can prevent this from happening by recognizing the common signs associated with anemia and seeking medical attention.
The hematologists and medical oncologists of RCCA are committed to providing patients with state-of-the-art care for a variety of conditions, including anemia. They offer patients accurate diagnosis and cutting-edge treatments at 20 convenient locations throughout New Jersey, Connecticut, Maryland, and the Washington, DC, area. Individuals who wish to learn more about blood disorders or who have been diagnosed with anemia and require treatment can contact us today or request an appointment.