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Topic Overview

What is anemia?

Having anemia means you don't have enough red blood cells. Your body needs these cells to carry oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body.

Anemia is fairly common. It's often easily treated. Sometimes, though, it's serious.

What causes anemia?

There are three main reasons why you might get anemia:

  • You lose too much blood.
  • Your body doesn't make enough red blood cells.
  • You have a disease or other problem that destroys red blood cells.

Losing too much blood

This is a common cause of anemia, especially for women who have heavy bleeding during their periods.

It can also happen with ulcers or other problems that cause bleeding inside the body.

Not making enough red blood cells

A balanced diet usually provides the vitamins and minerals your body needs to make red blood cells. You might get anemia if your food doesn't include enough iron, folic acid, vitamin B12, and vitamin C.

A pregnant woman needs to make extra red blood cells for the growing baby. So anemia during pregnancy is common.

Sometimes a long-term disease keeps your body from making enough red blood cells. Examples include kidney disease, arthritis, diabetes, and cancer.

Destroying too many red blood cells

Red blood cells last about 4 months. That's why your body needs to keep making new ones. But there are some problems that can destroy red blood cells sooner than that.

For example, diseases like sickle cell disease and thalassemia destroy red blood cells before their time. And some medical treatments, like chemotherapy, can destroy red blood cells.

What are the symptoms?

When you have anemia, you may feel dizzy, tired, and weak.

You may also feel your heart pounding or feel short of breath. It may be hard to focus and think clearly.

How is anemia diagnosed?

A blood test, sometimes done as part of a routine exam, will tell your doctor if you have anemia. Then your doctor will do other tests to figure out what's causing it.

How is it treated?

Sometimes all that's needed is a balanced diet. Some people need to take iron pills. Others may need a vitamin like folic acid or vitamin B12.

You may also get treatment for any problem that is causing the anemia, such as ulcers or a problem in the bone marrow.

People who are very anemic may need blood transfusions. They may need other treatments too, such as medicines to suppress the immune system.


Other Works Consulted

  • National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (2012). What is anemia? Available online: http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/anemia. Accessed June 10, 2014.


Current as of: November 7, 2019

Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review: E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Martin J. Gabica MD - Family Medicine
Caroline S. Rhoads MD - Internal Medicine

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