Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center - Health Library

Health Library Home>Disease, Condition, & Injury Fact Sheets>Article

Anemia

Definition

Anemia is a low level of healthy red blood cells (RBCs). RBCs carry oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. When red blood cells are low, the body does not get enough oxygen.

There are several specific types of anemia, including:

Red Blood Cells
Nucleus factsheet image

Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

Causes

The main causes of anemia are:

  • Blood loss, such as that caused by:
    • Heavy menstrual periods
    • Bleeding in the digestive tract
    • Bleeding in the urinary tract
    • Surgery
    • Trauma
    • Cancer
  • Body does not make enough RBCs due to one of the following:
  • RBCs are destroyed at a higher rate than normal because of health issues such as:
    • Sickle cell anemia
    • Thalassemia
    • Low levels of certain enzymes

Risk Factors

Anemia is more common in woman and woman who are pregnant. It is also more common in older adults who are sick or infants less than 2 years old.

Other factors that may increase the risk of anemia include:

  • Poor diet low in iron, vitamins, and minerals
  • Blood loss may be due to periods, surgery or injury
  • Chronic or serious illness
  • Chronic infections
  • Family history of inherited anemia such as sickle cell anemia and thalassemia

Symptoms

Anemia may cause:

  • Tiredness
  • Paleness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Lightheadedness
  • Headache
  • Coldness in the hands and feet
  • Chest pain
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat

Diagnosis

You will be asked about your symptoms and health history. A physical exam will be done. Blood tests will show how many RBCs there are and if they are healthy. Other tests may be needed to look for causes.

Treatment

The goal of treatment is to increase healthy RBCs. The exact steps will depend on the cause. Treating the underlying cause may relieve some anemia. Other steps that may help to increase RBCs include:

  • Certain vitamins and minerals are needed to make red blood cells. Foods rich in iron, vitamin C, vitamin B12, and folate can help. Other may need supplements if they can not get enough nutrients from food.
  • Medicine may help to increase the amount of RBCs the body can make.
  • A blood transfusion can quickly increase RBCs. The effect will not last if the cause of anemia is not treated.
  • RBCs are made in the bone marrow. Transplanting bone marrow or stem cells can help to grow new healthy bone marrow. This new marrow should be able to make healthy RBCs. This procedure carries risk. It is only done in severe cases of anemia.

Prevention

A diet rich in iron and vitamins may help to prevent some types of anemia.

RESOURCES:

Iron Disorders Institute
http://www.irondisorders.org

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

Canadian Blood Services
https://blood.ca

Health Canada
https://www.canada.ca

REFERENCES:

Anemia in Adults - Approach to the Patient. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at:https://www.dynamed.com/approach-to/anemia-in-adults-approach-to-the-patient. Updated September 27, 2019. Accessed February 7, 2020.

Anemia of Inflammation. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at:https://www.dynamed.com/condition/anemia-of-inflammation/. Updated June 13, 2019. Accessed February 7, 2020.

Iron Deficiency Anemia in Adults. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at:https://www.dynamed.com/condition/anemia-of-inflammation/. Updated March 14, 2019. Accessed February 7, 2020.

Explore anemia. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute website. Available at: https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/anemia. Updated May 18, 2012. Accessed February 7, 2020.

Vieth JT, Lane DR. Anemia. Hematol Oncol Clin North Am. 2017 Dec;31(6):1045-1060.

Last reviewed September 2019 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Marcin Chwistek, MD  Last Updated: 9/27/2019