No one ever wants to be on the receiving end of news that they have a serious illness like anemia. Still, if you are, you certainly want to know everything you can about it to have the best chances of either curing the illness or making it as manageable as possible. Thankfully, anemia can be a treatable condition as long as you have the information you need to recognize the symptoms, get the right treatment and live healthily.
Here we will discuss anemia, the different types of anemia, common symptoms, available treatments, and how to manage the condition, including what you can do at home and other changes you can make.
What is anemia?
The broad definition of anemia is a disorder that affects the hemoglobin or the red blood cell production of the body in some manner, causing negative impacts on the body and failing to meet the body’s needs. Because of the number of different anemic disorders, the range of effects, causes and symptoms are very broad. To help those that may be suffering from a particular type of anemia, we will provide a more detailed description of some of the more common types.
Types, causes, and symptoms
Anemia is a blood disorder without a single set of causes or symptoms, which can make it more difficult to diagnose and treat without proper testing. A person who suffers from anemia may not even recognize it themselves, so understanding the signs and symptoms is key to getting diagnosed and treated earlier to avoid as many potential complications as possible.
Aplastic anemia is a rare form of the disorder that causes the body to stop producing red blood cells. This can occur all at once when the body stops producing red blood cells altogether, or it can occur gradually over time.
Additionally, it can affect people with no known pattern of progression at any age. This makes it particularly difficult to catch early unless symptoms are noticed, and the condition is caught shortly after it begins.
There is still speculation as to the root cause of the disorder. The reason for the disruption of blood cell production is directly linked to a problem with stem cells in the bone marrow. Bone marrow produces different blood cells, red, white, and platelets. When the stem cells are damaged, this can slow the creation of blood cells; the condition is called being “hypoplastic,” and if the production is ceased entirely, a person is “aplastic.”
The cause of the stem cell disorder that causes anemia is not directly known. However, it can be linked to a few different causes.
Cancer treatments such as chemotherapy – Radiology and treatments such as chemotherapy that are known to kill specific types of cells, such as cancer cells, can also harm other cells. In this case, these treatments can cause a defect in bone marrow stem cells, which causes aplastic anemia.
Dangerous and foreign chemical exposure – Much like with radiation, exposure to certain chemicals, fluids, and gasses can cause cellular damage to the body. Those working in certain fields, such as the production of petroleum-based fuels and high-end chemicals, those working around pesticides, herbicides, and other elements are at risk of exposure as any of these harmful chemicals can cause a defect in stem cells.
Bone marrow infections – A wide range of viral infections specifically attack the bone marrow. These infections can potentially alter blood cell production, which can ultimately lead to aplastic anemia.
Medication interactions – Certain medications, particularly those that alter immune response, such as rheumatoid arthritis medications and others, have been known to affect how the body produces red blood cells, which can lead to aplastic anemia.
Autoimmune disorders – Most autoimmune disorders cause the body to attack its cells, even stem cells, which can cause the body to produce fewer blood cells than are necessary for normal operations.
Idiopathic Anemia – In some cases, doctors cannot find a direct link to a cause for the decline in cell production. This is known as idiopathic aplastic anemia. Idiopathic refers to the fact that a disease or condition does not follow the typical pattern or behavior that has been medically established.
Pregnancy – Though rare, it is possible that during pregnancy, the body may attack its cells, including stem cells, resulting in a decrease in the production of blood cells. This risk is increased for mothers who carry a negative blood type who is carrying a child.
As we stated, this is just a list of the known causes of the alteration of the stem cells. There is no current information on a genetic deviation or other cause directly related to the alteration of stem cells in the bone marrow, meaning that there could be further risks of developing this type of anemia beyond the causes we have listed here.
There are quite a few symptoms that can occur, and there is no specific pattern. It is important to look at the collection of symptoms and get checked if you feel there is a possibility that you may have an anemic disorder. Some of the symptoms include:
- Fatigue/ low energy
- Shortness of breath/ difficulty breathing or catching one’s breath
- Rapid or irregular heart rate
- Pale skin
- Frequent or prolonged infections
- An unexplained rash of the skin or easy bruising
- Spontaneous, severe, or prolonged bleeding, sometimes for no reason
One important thing to note about aplastic anemia is that it can present with no symptoms, making it nearly impossible to detect. Asymptomatic aplastic anemia can be incredibly dangerous. Once symptoms do onset, it is advised to get to a doctor as quickly as possible to find treatment as the disorder can sometimes prove to be fatal.
Iron deficiency anemia
Iron deficiency anemia is the most common type of anemia and is a condition in which the body cannot produce enough red blood cells due to a lack of iron in the blood. Iron is responsible for creating the substance hemoglobin, which is what blood cells need to carry oxygen throughout the body. As a result, the body cannot produce enough blood cells to provide oxygen to the various muscles, organs, and tissues of the body, which can cause major problems.
Because of the nature of iron deficiency anemia, there are several specific causes related to blood loss and iron in the blood. If you are experiencing any of these conditions, it raises the chances that you will develop this form of anemia.
Traumatic or repetitive blood loss – One of the primary ways a person develops this form of anemia is through traumatic or repeated blood loss. This can be because of injury, blood disease where a person needs a transfusion, cancer treatment, or other causes. The loss of blood lowers the iron level, and if it is continuous, it can cause repeated issues with anemia causing consistent treatment.
Iron absorption problems – Some people may have a disorder that prevents them from properly absorbing iron. Even with a proper diet or the use of oral supplements, this can cause an iron deficiency which, if left untreated, will lead to full-blown anemia.
A low iron diet – Though rarer than other causes, a diet that is exceedingly low in iron can cause a person to develop iron deficiency anemia. Many foods contain iron, but if a person manages to avoid any substantial natural sources of iron, they can, over time, develop an iron deficiency.
Pregnancy – A person can suffer from low iron because of the growing fetus and a woman’s increased demand due to blood volume. The natural absorption of iron cannot compete with the demand, and it can lead to iron deficiency anemia. This is a fairly common issue for pregnant women.
Because of how easy it is to have low iron, this is a common problem, though it is also much more treatable if caught early. While it is treatable, many people have chronic issues with the disorder, leading to a need for repeat treatments.
The only way to know if you have the disorder is to recognize the symptoms and get your iron levels tested without being diagnosed specifically with iron deficiency anemia. Some of the symptoms of iron deficiency anemia include:
- Extreme fatigue/ muscle weakness/ inability to perform daily activities
- Pale skin
- Chest pain, irregular heart rate, heartburn-like symptoms
- Headache, dizziness, or lightheadedness
- Cold or numb extremities, particularly the hands and feet
- Inflammation or soreness of your tongue
- Brittle or thin nails
- Unusual cravings for non-nutritive substances, such as ice, dirt, or starch
- Poor appetite or loss of appetite more common in younger patients
These symptoms can gradually manifest one at a time, or a person can develop several all at once, leading to a completely debilitating situation. Sudden onset of fatigue and lack of energy is typically the first recognized symptom. If you notice this and have no other specific changes in your day-to-day life, it’s a good time to see your doctor to get tested for an iron deficiency.
Sickle Cell Anemia
Sickle cell anemia is part of a cluster of disorders collectively known as sickle cell disease. It affects the shape of red blood cells and can cause potentially deadly complications. Sickle cell diseases, in general, all affect the red blood cells, but sickle cell anemia is the most prevalent in populations with the disease.
The disease changes the normally soft, round, and flexible red blood cells into hard, sticky “c” shaped cells. These cells don’t function the way normal red blood cells do and can slow or block blood flow to different parts of the body, in addition to the fact that they can’t carry oxygen the way normal red blood cells can.
Unlike other types of anemia on our list, this one is an inherited genetic trait. It involves a gene that tells the body to make the iron-rich substance in blood known as hemoglobin. For a person to have the disease, it must be passed on to them by both parents. If only one parent carries the gene, it may be passed on, but they will not develop the disease and will not show signs or symptoms. However, they can still pass the disease on to their children, especially if they have children with another disease carrier.
As we mentioned, there are multiple types of sickle cell disease, but sickle cell anemia is the most common. It is called anemia because the blood does not contain enough iron, along with the deformity in the blood cells.
Symptoms of sickle cell anemia typically manifest around six months of age but may change over time. While the disease doesn’t grow worse on its own, lifestyle factors can affect the frequency of symptoms and how often severe episodes occur. Here are a few of the possible symptoms a person can experience:
Anemia – Sickle cells die off much more quickly than normal blood cells; they last about 1/10th as long as a normal blood cell. Because of this, the body can’t produce enough new blood cells fast enough, which leads to anemia which causes fatigue and other symptoms. This is in addition to the decreased iron carried by the sickle-shaped cells.
Chronic and severe pain – Another common symptom of sickle cell anemia is episodes of severe pain caused by the sickle-shaped cell blocking blood flow to joints and the chest cavity. These episodes are often called “pain crises” and can require hospitalization to treat and manage.
Some report chronic and ongoing pain due to their sickle cell anemia which recurs daily and must be managed with medication.
Swelling in the extremities – Due to the blockage of blood flow, swelling in the extremities, particularly the hands and feet, is also common with sickle cell. The lack of proper blood flow can cause pain, swelling, numbness, and lack of mobility.
Ongoing or continuous infections – Sickle cell is known to damage the spleen, which helps defend the body against infections. If this happens, the person will likely develop severe and prolonged infections, which can be extremely devastating and even fatal when mixed with other health issues.
Delayed onset of puberty/slowed growth – Not only does sickle cell block blood flow, which carries the necessary oxygen to parts of the body, but it also blocks the delivery of necessary nutrients. If this happens regularly, it can stunt a young person’s growth, delaying puberty’s onset and causing other growth-related problems.
Vision Complications – The sickle-shaped blood cells can potentially clog and block the blood vessels in the eye that lead to the retina. This can cause vision problems such as blurred vision. Loss of sight is possible if blood flow to the retina remains blocked for long enough.
As we discussed, these are just some of the possible symptoms and side effects, and all of them can come and go as a person ages, and the disease affects them. It’s also good to remember that each case is unique, and a person can be affected dramatically differently from the norm, or even not for some time.
Vitamin deficiency anemia
Vitamin deficiency anemia is a more specific type of anemia that develops due to a lack of vitamins B-12 and folate. When the body does not have enough of these two vitamins, the red blood cells become too large to properly transport oxygen throughout the body, leading to the standard symptoms of anemia like fatigue, muscle weakness, and dizziness.
This type of anemia is caused directly by the deficiency in these two vitamins, as the name suggests. These vitamin deficiencies themselves can have a few different causes, though.
Poor diet – One of the most common reasons for the lack of these specific nutrients is a diet that does not contain enough of these vitamins. Changing diet or taking supplements can help offset this issue.
Gastric surgery – Stomach surgery is something that can interfere with the way the body absorbs vitamins, particularly B12. The stomach produces a substance known as an intrinsic factor which helps with the absorption of B12; without enough of it, the body simply cannot absorb enough of the vitamin.
Pernicious anemia – Pernicious anemia is a condition that occurs when the body’s immune system attacks the stomach and eliminates the intrinsic factor created by the stomach, thus preventing the absorption of nutrients. This can also make it more difficult to treat anemia through normal means.
Other problems – A range of issues can also affect vitamin absorption, such as intestinal surgery or digestion issues, medications, diseases affecting the stomach or intestines, and excessive alcohol use.
Many symptoms of vitamin deficiency anemia are similar to other forms of anemia, but there are a few unique ones to look out for. Here are some of the common symptoms:
- Fatigue/ muscle weakness
- Shortness of breath/difficulty breathing normally
- Pale or yellowish skin
- Irregular heartbeats
- Unexpected weight loss
- Loss of feeling or tingling in the extremities, most notably the hands and feet
- Personality changes
- Unsteady movements, similar to a feeling of loss of balance or vertigo
- Brain fog/confusion/forgetfulness
If you notice any more unique symptoms or a cluster of symptoms, it is time to see your doctor and get tested for vitamin deficiency anemia.
Potential treatments for anemia
While there are some differences between the multiple types of anemia, there are some ways to treat the disorder. In some cases, these treatments will cure the disorder; in others, there is no cure.
One of the easiest ways to treat the disorder of iron deficiency and vitamin deficiency anemia is by making necessary changes to your diet. This means eating more iron-rich foods to fight iron deficiency and B12 and folate-rich foods for vitamin deficiency. It takes time for this to take effect, so it’s also a good idea to look at other options.
Diet will not fix sickle cell or aplastic anemia, but it will reduce the severity of some symptoms and episodes.
Oral supplements/over-the-counter medications
It is possible to alleviate and improve the symptoms of various types of anemia through oral supplements like iron supplements and vitamins and to use medications to relieve pain and other symptoms in the case of sickle cell anemia and aplastic anemia.
Unfortunately, symptom management is the only option in some cases as there is no safe cure for sickle cell anemia or aplastic anemia. While a bone marrow transplant is an option in both cases, it is rarely performed due to extreme risks to the patients and limited success.
For sickle cell anemia and aplastic anemia, one way that doctors can provide temporary relief is through the transfusion of healthy blood cells into a patient. This can reduce the severity of symptoms and limit episodes, but it must be repeated regularly to continue providing relief.
One type of treatment that can benefit most types of anemia is an IV treatment. In the case of iron deficiency anemia, an iron infusion is a way to quickly and efficiently get iron back into the body. It can take much longer through diet and supplements alone.
Vitamin infusions can help with vitamin deficiency anemia by restoring the proper levels of B12 and folate quickly.
Different types of wellness infusions, immune boosts, and other treatments are available that can help manage the symptoms of sickle cell anemia and aplastic anemia. Though they will not cure the disease, they can provide comfort and relief without having to visit a hospital or leave your home. IV treatments can be seen as a form of maintenance therapy.
These different treatments can improve the health and quality of life of patients with various types of anemia. It is a good idea to check with your doctor about all the available options and see which ones work the best for you in your unique situation. A combination of different treatments may be able to make a drastic difference in the prognosis of someone with anemia.