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What Is Anemia?

Anemia is a common condition among women and men, but it is also commonly overlooked. While there are many causes of anemia, all of them involve a situation in which the body does not have enough red blood cells, resulting in below normal hemoglobin levels. This prevents the body from being able to circulate an adequate amount of oxygen. Most commonly, this is the result of blood loss (including menstrual bleeding), but may also occur when the body decreases red blood cell production or increases red blood cell destruction.

In women, iron deficiency anemia as a result of excessive menstrual bleeding is the most common type of anemia. Women with fibroids or dysfunctional uterine bleeding (DUB) are at greatest risk. Other causes of blood loss, such as trauma, surgery, or even from small amounts of bleeding over a long period of time, can also deplete red blood cells and cause anemia.

Anemia from decreased red blood cell production stems from various things, including iron deficiency or thalassemia, an inherited disease found most often in people of Mediterranean background. Also, cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy can lose red blood cells during treatment. Patients with conditions that may damage the kidneys, such as chronic kidney disease, may not be producing erythropoietin, a protein produced by healthy kidneys that helps stimulate the production of red blood cells.

Increased destruction of red blood cells involves either defects outside of the cell, such as infection or problems with the body's own immune system as seen in patients with autoimmune disorders or HIV/AIDS. Destruction of red blood cells also can be the result of abnormalities within the red blood cell itself, such as a metabolic disorder or a hemoglobin problem. Sickle cell anemia is the best-known example of this type of anemia in which abnormal hemoglobin causes red blood cells to become crescent-shaped in this inherited, incurable condition. Anemia may also result as a side effect of several different medicines.

The symptoms of anemia may include mild fatigue or extreme tiredness. Other symptoms may include weakness, paleness, shortness of breath, dizziness, lightheadedness, headaches, ringing in the ears, sleeplessness, impaired concentration and rapid heartbeat. The good news is that it is very easy to diagnose anemia with a simple blood test.

More good news is that most causes of anemia can be treated. Treatment is generally focused on addressing the cause. In cases of iron-deficiency anemia, for example, iron supplements are usually sufficient. In some cases, blood transfusions or surgery may be necessary. Red blood cell growth factors are effective in treating anemia in chemotherapy-treated patients with most types of cancer. Red blood cell growth factors are virtually identical to a substance the body produces called erythropoietin and increases the number of red blood cells in the body. If more red blood cells are produced, more oxygen is carried through the body, which may increase patients' energy levels.

Created: 5/9/2005  -  Donnica Moore, M.D.

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