What is anemia?

Anemia is a blood condition caused by having a low number of red blood cells. You may also have low hemoglobin, which is an iron-rich protein in red blood cells that is responsible for attaching to oxygen molecules and circulating oxygen throughout the body. When your body's tissues, muscles, and organs don't receive enough oxygen, you may have certain symptoms such as fatigue, weakness and dizziness. Without treatment, anemia can sometimes be life threatening.

Causes of anemia

There are more than 400 types of anemia caused by a variety of diseases, conditions, and other health and lifestyle factors. The cause is always one or more of these factors:

  • Blood loss
  • Low or abnormal red cell production
  • Destruction of red blood cells

Anemia caused by blood loss, for example, is common in menstruating women as well as in women after childbirth. People with kidney disease, or another disorder that affects red blood cell production, may also have anemia. People with autoimmune disorders may also be anemic because the body perceives red blood cells as foreign, and therefore attacks and destroys them. Hereditary conditions, such as sickle cell anemia, make the red blood cells thick and sticky, which can cause blockages and affect blood flow.

Diagnosis and testing for anemia

Your doctor will first perform a physical exam and review your medical history and symptoms. You will also need a blood test (complete blood count, or CBC) as well as testing to determine levels of iron in your body and your body's levels of vitamin B12 and folate, which are needed to produce red blood cells. You may also undergo additional testing to rule out other blood disorders and diseases.

Anemia treatments

If you are anemic, treatment may include a combination of dietary changes, vitamin B12 and iron supplementation, and medication that supports healthy red blood cell production. Depending on the type, additional treatments and procedures may be required.

If you are having symptoms that concern you, or you suspect anemia due to other health conditions, be sure to discuss your symptoms with your doctor.

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