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What is Anemia?

Anemia is a condition in which you lack enough healthy red blood cells to carry adequate oxygen to your body’s tissues. Having anemia can make you feel tired and weak.

There are many forms of anemia, each with its own cause. Anemia can be temporary or long term, and it can range from mild to severe. See your doctor if you suspect that you have anemia. It can be a warning sign of serious illness.

Treatments for anemia range from taking supplements to undergoing medical procedures. You might be able to prevent some types of anemia by eating a healthy, varied diet.

Symptoms of Anemia

Anemia signs and symptoms vary depending on the cause. If the anemia is caused by a chronic disease, the disease can mask them, so that the anemia might be detected by tests for another condition.

Depending on the causes of your anemia, you might have no symptoms. Signs and symptoms, if they do occur, might include:

  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Pale or yellowish skin
  • Irregular heartbeats
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Chest pain
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Headaches

At first, anemia can be so mild that you don’t notice it. But symptoms worsen as anemia worsens.

What causes anemia?

Dietary iron, vitamin B-12, and folate are essential for red blood cells to mature in the body. Normally, 0.8 to 1 percent of the body’s red blood cells are replaced every day, and the average lifespan for red cells is 100 to 120 days. Any process that has a negative effect on this balance between red blood cell production and destruction can cause anemia.

Causes of anemia are generally divided into those that decrease red blood cell production and those that increase red blood cell destruction.

Different types of anemia have different causes. They include:

  • Iron deficiency anemia. This most common type of anemia is caused by a shortage of iron in your body. Your bone marrow needs iron to make hemoglobin. Without adequate iron, your body can’t produce enough hemoglobin for red blood cells.

Without iron supplementation, this type of anemia occurs in many pregnant women. It is also caused by blood loss, such as from heavy menstrual bleeding, an ulcer, cancer and regular use of some over-the-counter pain relievers, especially aspirin, which can cause inflammation of the stomach lining resulting in blood loss.

  • Vitamin deficiency anemia. Besides iron, your body needs folate and vitamin B-12 to produce enough healthy red blood cells. A diet lacking in these and other key nutrients can cause decreased red blood cell production.

Also, some people who consume enough B-12 aren’t able to absorb the vitamin. This can lead to vitamin deficiency anemia, also known as pernicious anemia.

  • Anemia of inflammation. Certain diseases — such as cancer, HIV/AIDS, rheumatoid arthritis, kidney disease, Crohn’s disease and other acute or chronic inflammatory diseases — can interfere with the production of red blood cells.
  • Aplastic anemia. This rare, life-threatening anemia occurs when your body doesn’t produce enough red blood cells. Causes of aplastic anemia include infections, certain medicines, autoimmune diseases and exposure to toxic chemicals.
  • Anemias associated with bone marrow disease. A variety of diseases, such as leukemia and myelofibrosis, can cause anemia by affecting blood production in your bone marrow. The effects of these types of cancer and cancer-like disorders vary from mild to life-threatening.
  • Hemolytic anemias. This group of anemias develops when red blood cells are destroyed faster than bone marrow can replace them. Certain blood diseases increase red blood cell destruction. You can inherit a hemolytic anemia, or you can develop it later in life.
  • Sickle cell anemia. This inherited and sometimes serious condition is a hemolytic anemia. It’s caused by a defective form of hemoglobin that forces red blood cells to assume an abnormal crescent (sickle) shape. These irregular blood cells die prematurely, resulting in a chronic shortage of red blood cells.

Prevention

Many types of anemia can’t be prevented. But you can avoid iron deficiency anemia and vitamin deficiency anemia by eating a diet that includes a variety of vitamins and minerals, including:

Iron. Iron-rich foods include beef and other meats, beans, lentils, iron-fortified cereals, dark green leafy vegetables, and dried fruit.

Folate. This nutrient, and its synthetic form folic acid, can be found in fruits and fruit juices, dark green leafy vegetables, green peas, kidney beans, peanuts, and enriched grain products, such as bread, cereal, pasta and rice.

Vitamin B-12. Foods rich in vitamin B-12 include meat, dairy products, and fortified cereal and soy products.

Vitamin C. Foods rich in vitamin C include citrus fruits and juices, peppers, broccoli, tomatoes, melons and strawberries. These also help increase iron absorption.

If you’re concerned about getting enough vitamins and minerals from food, ask your doctor whether a multivitamin might help.

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