Anemia is a blood disorder characterized by abnormally low levels of healthy red blood cells (RBCs) or reduced hemoglobin (Hgb), the iron-bearing protein in red blood cells that delivers oxygen to tissues throughout the body. Reduced blood cell volume (hematocrit) is also considered anemia. The reduction of any or all of the three blood parameters reduces the oxygen-carrying capability of the blood, causing reduced oxygenation of body tissues, a condition called hypoxia.
All tissues in the human body need a regular supply of oxygen to stay healthy and perform their functions. RBCs contain Hgb, a protein pigment that allows the cells to carry oxygen (oxygenate) tissues throughout the body. RBCs live about 120 days and are normally replaced in an orderly way by the bone marrow, spleen, and liver. As RBCs break down, they release Hgb into the blood stream, which is normally filtered out by the kidneys and excreted. The iron released from the RBCs is returned to the bone marrow to help create new cells. Anemia develops when either blood loss, a slow-down in the production of new RBCs (erythropoiesis), or an increase in red cell destruction (hemolysis) causes significant reductions in RBCs, Hgb, iron levels, and the essential delivery of oxygen to body tissues.
Anemia can be mild, moderate, or severe enough to lead to life-threatening complications. More than 400 different types of anemia have been identified. Many of them are rare. Most are caused by ongoing or sudden blood loss. Other causes include vitamin and mineral deficiencies, inherited conditions, and certain diseases that affect red cell production or destruction.
Anemia in newborn infants is noted when hemoglobin levels are lower than expected for the birth weight and postnatal age. Premature or low birth-weight infants may have lower hemoglobin levels. The normal newborn Hgb is 16.8 dL, which may be 1 to 2 dL lower if birth weight is abnormally low. Anemia may be the first sign of certain disorders in the newborn, such as blood loss that has occurred from transplacental hemorrhage, a condition in which the infant's blood bleeds back into the mother's circulation; bleeding from ruptures in the liver, spleen, adrenals, or kidneys; or hemorrhage within the brain (intracranial hemorrhage). Anemia can also be caused by the destruction of red blood cells or reduced red blood cell production. Newborns may also have low red blood cell volume (hematocrit or Hct) if they were born by cesarean section . It must be noted, however, that hemoglobin decreases naturally (physiologic decrease) in infants by eight to 12 weeks of age, leveling at a normal value of 11 g/dL or better.
Iron deficiency anemia is the most common form of anemia worldwide. In the United States, it affects thousands of toddlers between one and two years of age and more than 3 million women of childbearing age. This condition is less common in older children and in adults over 50 and rarely occurs in teenage boys and young men.
The onset of iron deficiency anemia is gradual and may not have early symptoms. The deficiency begins when the body loses more iron than it derives from food and other sources. Because depleted iron stores cannot meet the red blood cell's needs, fewer red blood cells develop. In this early stage of anemia, the red blood cells look normal, but they are reduced in number. Then the body tries to compensate for the iron deficiency by producing more red blood cells, which are characteristically small in size (spherocytosis). Symptoms of anemia, especially weakness and fatigue, develop at this stage. Individuals may be given iron preparations by injection or advised to take oral iron supplements. It sometimes helps to take vitamin C along with oral iron supplementation to encourage better absorption of the iron. Taking iron supplements can result in diarrhea , cramps, or vomiting .
Folic acid deficiency anemia
Folic acid deficiency anemia is the most common type of megaloblastic anemia, arising from a problem with the synthesis of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) within the cells of the body. It is characterized by RBCs that are larger than normal and is caused by a deficiency of folic acid, a vitamin that the body needs to produce normal cells and normal DNA.
Folic acid anemia is especially common in infants and teenagers. This condition usually results from a dietary deficiency but may also be due to an inability to absorb (malabsorption) folic acid. Folic acid is available in many foods, such as cheese, eggs, fish, green vegetables, meat, milk, mushrooms, and yeast. Smoking raises the risk of developing this condition by interfering with the absorption of vitamin C, which the body needs to absorb folic acid. Folic acid anemia can be a complication of pregnancy, when a woman's body needs eight times more folic acid than it does otherwise. Folic acid deficiency in pregnant women may lead to birth defects in their children. Supplementation of folic acid is recommended during pregnancy.
Vitamin B 12 deficiency anemia
Less common in the United States than folic acid anemia, vitamin B 12 deficiency anemia is another type of megaloblastic anemia that develops when the body does not absorb enough of this nutrient. Necessary for the creation of healthy RBCs, B 12 is found in meat, eggs, whole grains, and most vegetables. Large amounts of B 12 are stored in the body, so this condition may not become apparent until up to four years after B 12 absorption stops or slows down. The resulting drop in RBC production can cause loss of muscle control; loss of sensation in the legs, hands, and feet; soreness, slickness, or burning of the tongue; weight loss; or yellow-blue color blindness . Confusion, depression, and memory loss may also be associated with the deficiency.
Pernicious anemia is the most common form of B 12 deficiency. Since most people who eat meat or eggs get enough B 12 in their diets, a deficiency of this vitamin usually means that the body is not absorbing it properly. This condition can be found in those who do not produce adequate amounts of a chemical secreted by the stomach lining that combines with B 12 to help its absorption in the small intestine. Pernicious anemia is diagnosed more often in adults between ages 50 and 60 than in children or young people, although there is the possibility of inheriting the condition, with symptoms not appearing until later in life.
Vitamin C deficiency anemia
Anemia due to vitamin C deficiency is a rare disorder that causes the bone marrow to manufacture abnormally small red blood cells. Vitamin C deficiency anemia results from a severe, long-standing dietary deficiency or malabsorption of this essential vitamin. It is usually easily corrected with supplementation.
Hemolytic anemia can be present at birth (congenital hemolytic anemia or spherocytosis) or acquired later in life. It is the result of either infection or the presence of antibodies that destroy RBCs more rapidly than bone marrow can replace them. Hemolytic anemia can enlarge the spleen, an organ that also produces red blood cells when necessary. Production of cells by the spleen will increase to meet the demands of accelerated RBC destruction (hemolysis). Complications of hemolytic anemia in older children or adults include pain , gallstones, and other serious health problems.
Hemolytic disease of the newborn is a specific variation of hemolytic anemia in which an incompatibility exists between antigens on the cells of the mother and baby, causing antibodies to develop in the mother's circulation. The antibodies are produced as an immune response to what the body views as foreign antigens on the surface of the infant's RBCs. Several specific antigens are responsible for the incompatibilities: Rh type incompatibility, ABO blood group incompatibility, and other incompatibilities involving antigens known as Kell, Duffy, M, N, and P, among many others. Hemolytic disease of the newborn and the anemia that results is detectable within the first few days after birth. Depending on the strength of the antibody, the anemia may clear up on its own or exchange transfusions may be necessary to replace the newborn's blood.
An inherited form of hemolytic anemia, thalassemia comes from the production of abnormal hemoglobin. It is characterized by low hemoglobin and unusually small and fragile RBCs (microcytosis), although the RBC count may be normal. Thalassemia has several types that involve imbalances in the four chains of amino acids that comprise hemoglobin (alpha- and beta-globins). In thalassemia minor or thalassemia trait (heterozygous thalassemia), also called alpha-thalassemia, there is an imbalance in the production of the alpha chain of amino acids. In thalassemia minor, fetal hemoglobin (HbF), the hemoglobin form that circulates in the fetus, does not decrease normally after birth and may remain high in later life. A child may inherit thalassemia trait when only one parent has the genes responsible for it. It is usually not treated and does not have serious consequences. Thalassemia major (homozygous thalassemia or Cooley's anemia) occurs in children in whom both parents pass on the genes responsible. It is known as beta-thalassemia, because of an imbalance in the beta chain amino acids of hemoglobin. It also involves the persistence of HbF with larger than normal amounts appearing in the child's circulation. Alpha-thalassemias occur most commonly in African Americans; beta-thalassemias most commonly affect people of Mediterranean or middle-Eastern ancestry and Southeast Asians. Hemoglobin H disease is another form of thalassemia in which three of the four beta-globin genes are missing.
Sickle cell anemia
Sickle cell anemia is an inherited, chronic, incurable blood disorder that causes the body to produce defective hemoglobin, the abnormal HgbS, which occurs primarily in African Americans. The condition is characterized by abnormal, crescent-shaped RBCs. Unlike normal oval cells, fragile sickle cells cannot hold enough hemoglobin to nourish body tissues. The deformed shape makes it hard for sickle cells to pass through narrow blood vessels. When capillaries become obstructed, a life-threatening condition called sickle cell crisis is likely to occur. A child who inherits the sickle cell gene from each parent will have the disease. A child who inherits the sickle cell gene from only one parent carries the sickle cell trait but does not have the disease.
Sometimes curable by bone marrow transplant, but potentially fatal, aplastic anemia is characterized by decreased production of red and white blood cells and platelets (disc-shaped cells that are a key component of blood coagulation). This disorder may be inherited or acquired as a result of the following:
- recent severe illness
- long-term exposure to industrial chemicals
- chemotherapy, use of anticancer drugs, and certain other medications
Anemia of chronic disease
Cancer , chronic infection or inflammation, and kidney and liver disease often cause mild or moderate anemia. Chronic liver failure generally produces the most severe symptoms because the production of RBCs is directly affected.
Causes and symptoms
Anemias do not all stem from the same causes. Anemia can be the result of injuries, chronic or acute illnesses, complications of surgery or childbirth , metabolic disturbances or deficiencies, and adverse response to drug therapy administered for other conditions. Causes may include sudden or ongoing loss of blood, nutritional deficiencies, decreased red blood cell production, or increased red blood cell destruction. Malnutrition or malabsorption of nutrients can contribute to vitamin deficiency anemia and iron deficiency anemias. Although red cell destruction and replacement is an ongoing process in the body, hereditary disorders and certain diseases can accelerate blood cell destruction, resulting in anemia. However, excessive bleeding is the most common cause of severe anemia, and the speed with which blood loss occurs has a significant effect on the severity of symptoms. Chronic blood loss may be a consequence of the following:
- gastrointestinal tumors
- heavy or frequent menstrual flow
- stomach ulcers
- long-standing alcohol abuse
Acute blood loss may occur as a result of injury, a ruptured blood vessel, or a complication of surgery or childbirth. When a lot of blood is lost within a short time, blood pressure and the amount of oxygen in the body drop suddenly, sometimes leading to heart failure or death. Loss of even one third of the body's blood volume in the space of several hours can be fatal. Gradual blood loss is less threatening, because the body has time to replace RBCs and blood volume.
Weakness, fatigue, and a run-down feeling may be the first signs of anemia. Pasty or sallow skin color, or the absence of color in the gums, nail beds, creases of the palm, or lining of the eyelids are other signs of anemia. Individuals who appear to be weak, easily tired, often out of breath, and who may feel faint or dizzy on movement may be severely anemic.
Other symptoms of anemia may include the following:
- unusual cravings for ice (chewing on ice cubes), paint, or earth (actually eating dirt)
- inability to concentrate, memory loss
- inflammation of the mouth ( stomatitis ) or tongue (glossitis)
- irregular heartbeat
- loss of appetite
- dry, brittle, or ridged nails
- rapid breathing
- sores in the mouth, throat, or rectum
- perspiration, especially around the head and neck
- swelling of hands and feet
- constant thirst
- ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
- unexplained bleeding or bruising
- angina pectoris, i.e., chest pain accompanied by a choking sensation that may provoke anxiety
Acquired anemias affect about 4 million individuals in the United States, and over 50 percent of these are under age 45, although less than 10 percent of cases occur in children and adolescents. In the United States, iron deficiency anemia is the most prevalent type of anemia, affecting about 240,000 toddlers between one and two years of age and 3.3 million women of childbearing age. Anemia due to gradual blood loss is more common in women than in men, particularly pregnant women or women of menstruating age. Pernicious anemia is more common in women and in African Americans and is less common in other racial groups. Folate deficiency is not common in young people who eat an adequate diet and is usually associated with malnutrition, pregnancy, and alcoholism . Sickle cell anemia is more frequently diagnosed than thalassemias and occurs most often among African Americans. Thalassemia occurs in four out of 100,000 individuals in the United States, particularly among those of Mediterranean, Asian, or middle Eastern descent.
When to call the doctor
When a child exhibits weakness, dizziness , listlessness, or fatigue, it may be the first sign of anemia. The pediatrician should be consulted if the child is also extremely pale or has little or no color in the gums, nail beds, creases of the palm, or lining of the eyelids. Any prolonged bleeding or sudden blood loss requires examination by a physician and testing for anemia.
The child's medical history will be taken, including the child's age, symptoms, illnesses, and general state of health, and a family history of ancestry and known inherited anemias will be noted. Symptoms noticed in children by their parents may include fatigue, weight loss, inability to concentrate, loss of appetite, and light-headedness when standing up. The physical examination may reveal paleness, lack of color in the creases of the palm, gums, and the linings of the eyelids. The child's breathing rate may be increased and, in advanced cases, the spleen or liver may be enlarged when palpated. If anemia is due to chronic disease, there may be evidence of infection or inflammation. Urine output may be reduced in severe anemia.
Diagnostic testing begins with a complete blood count (CBC) and differential to reveal the RBC count, white blood cell (WBC) count, hemoglobin (Hgb), and hematocrit (Hct); any of these counts can be altered, and in most anemias the RBC and hemoglobin will be reduced. The mean corpuscular volume (MCV) will be measured to compare the size of RBCs with normal RBCs. A reticulocyte (young RBCs) count will help determine if anemia is caused by impaired RBC production or increased RBC destruction. Iron, vitamin C, vitamin B 12 , and folate levels will be measured to evaluate and identify possible deficiencies. Diagnosing thalassemia and sickle cell anemia, both of which involve disorders of hemoglobin, will require measuring the different types of hemoglobin through a laboratory testing method called hemoglobin electrophoresis. In some anemias, a bone marrow sample will be removed (bone marrow biopsy) for microscopic examination, especially to confirm iron deficiency anemia or the megaloblastic anemias. Kidney function tests, coagulation tests, and stool examinations for occult blood may also be performed.
Surgery may be necessary to correct blood losses caused by injury or hemorrhage (nose bleeds, aneurysm, cerebral hemorrhage, bleeding ulcer) or childbirth. Transfusions of packed red blood cells or whole blood may also be used to replace blood volume and to stimulate the body's own production of red blood cells. Medication or surgery may also be necessary to control heavy menstrual flow or to remove polyps (growths or nodules) from the bowels.
Anemia due to nutritional deficiencies can usually be treated with iron replacement therapy, specific vitamin supplements, or self-administered injections of vitamin B 12 . People with folic acid anemia may be advised to take oral folic acid.
Vitamin B 12 deficiency anemia requires a life-long regimen of B 12 shots to maintain vitamin levels and control symptoms of pernicious anemia. The patient may be advised to limit physical activity until treatment restores strength and balance.
Anemia resulting from chronic disease is typically corrected by treating the underlying illness. This type of anemia rarely becomes severe. If it does, transfusions or hormone treatments to stimulate red blood cell production may be given.
Thalassemia minor is typically not treated. Thalassemia major may be treated with regular transfusions, surgical resection of the spleen to avoid its removal of RBCs from circulation, and sometimes iron chelation therapy. Symptoms are treated as they occur. Children or young adults with thalassemia major may require periodic hospitalization to receive blood transfusions or, in some cases, bone marrow transplants.
Sickle cell anemia will be monitored by regular eye examinations and diagnostic blood work. Immunizations for pneumonia and infectious diseases are part of treatment along with prompt treatment for sickle cell crises and infections of any kind. Psychotherapy or counseling may help older children deal with the emotional symptoms characteristic of this condition.
Children with aplastic anemia are especially susceptible to infection. Treatment for aplastic anemia may involve blood transfusions and bone marrow transplantation to replace malfunctioning cells with healthy ones.
Hemolytic anemia of the warm-antibody type may be treated with large doses of intravenous and oral corticocosteroids (cortisone). Individuals who do not respond to medical therapy, may undergo surgery to remove the spleen, which controls the anemia in some individuals by helping to add more RBCs to the circulation. Immune-system suppressants are prescribed when surgery is not successful. There is no specific treatment for cold-anti-body hemolytic anemia.
Treatment of newborn anemia depends on the severity of symptoms, the level of Hgb, and the presence of any other diseases that may affect oxygen delivery, such as lung or heart disease or hyaline membrane disease. Transfusions may be given in certain situations or exchange transfusions if hemolytic disease of the newborn is not quickly resolved. The risk of transfusion (such as transfusion reactions, potential toxins, and infections such as HIV or hepatitis) are carefully weighed against the severity of the anemia in the infant.
Vitamin C is noted for helping to absorb iron and folate supplements. Cooking in a cast iron skillet may leach small amounts of absorbable iron into the diet. Folic acid can be readily absorbed from raw salad greens such as lettuce, spinach, arugula, alfalfa sprouts, and others. Blackstrap molasses is a good source of iron and B vitamins . Herbal supplements that will benefit individuals who have anemia include bilberry, dandelion, goldenseal, mullein, nettle, Oregon grape root, red raspberry, and yellow dock. Herbs are available as tinctures and teas or in capsules.
The diet is a ready source of nutrients that prevent and treat anemia. Children with anemia can include more of these nutrients in their diet by eating a broad variety of whole grains, fruits and vegetables, beans, lean meat, poultry and fish, and supplementing the diet regularly with vitamins, minerals , and iron (as recommended). Pediatricians should be consulted before iron supplements are taken, however, because of the difficulty in absorbing non-food sources of iron. Vitamin C can stimulate iron absorption. Good food sources of iron include: almonds, broccoli, dried beans, raisins, dried apricots, seaweed (as soup stock), whole-grain breads and cereals, brown rice, lean red meat, liver, potatoes, poultry, and shellfish.
Because light and heat destroy folic acid, fruits and vegetables should be eaten raw or cooked as little as possible to help assimilation of folic acid. Folic acid can also be taken as a supplement.
Most anemias can be treated or managed. The prognosis for anemias generally depends upon the severity of the anemia, the type of anemia, and the response to treatment. The hereditary anemias, such as the thalassemias and sickle cell anemia, may require life-long treatment and monitoring whereas other types of anemia, once treated, are apt not to recur. Thalassemia major may cause deformities and may shorten life expectancy. Severe anemia may lead to other serious conditions, particularly if oxygen delivery is compromised for long periods of time or RBC destruction is more rapid than can be controlled by normal RBC replacement or specific treatment. Severe blood loss or prolonged anemia can result in life-threatening complications.
Safety is the primary preventive measure for blood loss by injury. A wholesome, balanced diet rich in nutrients can help prevent dietary deficiencies that lead to anemia. Hereditary anemias cannot be prevented; parents can seek genetic testing and counseling if they are concerned about inherited anemias noted in their families or ethnic background.
Sources of iron such as liver, red meat, whole grains, and poultry may help maintain hemoglobin levels and reduce the likelihood of deficiency-related anemias. Vitamin C is noted for helping to improve assimilation of iron taken as supplements.
Parents may be particularly concerned about the possibility of inherited anemias. Genetic testing is available to address their doubts. Nutrition education is readily available from public health sources, books, and the reliable Internet sources for parents who are concerned about providing essential nutrients for children who may be susceptible to deficiency anemias. Regular physical examinations can help evaluate a child's overall health and reveal possible signs or symptoms of anemia.
Erythropoiesis —The process through which new red blood cells are created; it begins in the bone marrow.
Hematocrit —A measure of the percentage of red blood cells in the total volume of blood in the human body.
Hemoglobin —An iron-containing pigment of red blood cells composed of four amino acid chains (alpha, beta, gamma, delta) that delivers oxygen from the lungs to the cells of the body and carries carbon dioxide from the cells to the lungs.
Hemolysis —The process of breaking down of red blood cells. As the cells are destroyed, hemoglobin, the component of red blood cells which carries the oxygen, is liberated.
Hypoxia —A condition characterized by insufficient oxygen in the cells of the body
Megaloblast —A large erythroblast (a red marrow cell that synthesizes hemoglobin).
Reticulocyte —An early, immature form of a red blood cell. Over time, the reticulocyte develops to become a mature, oxygen-carrying red blood cell.
"Blood Disorders." The Merck Manual of Medical Information , 2nd Home ed. Edited by Mark H. Beers et al. White House Station, NJ: Merck & Co., 2003.
Hill, Shirley, A. Managing Sickle Cell Disease in Low-Income Families. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003.
Lande, Bruce. Aplastic Anemia and Other Autoimmune Diseases: Help Your Body Heal Itself. Syracuse, NY: Action Enterprises, 2003.
Ross, Allison J. Everything You Need to Know about Anemia. New York: Rosen Publishing Group, 2001.
Wick, M., et al. Iron Metabolism, Anemias, Clinical Aspects and Laboratory. New York: Springer, 2003.
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). 6701 Rockledge Drive, PO Box 30105, Bethesda, MD 20824–0105. Web site: http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov .
"Anemia." KidsHealth. Available online at http://kidshealth.org/parent/medical/heart/anemia.html (accessed October 10, 2004).
"Understanding Anemia: Your Life May Depend on It." Anemia Lifeline. Available online at http://www.anemia.com (accessed October 10, 2004).
L. Lee Culvert Maureen Haggerty