Your Health A-Z

Anaemia

Anaemia is a relatively common blood disorder in which there is an insufficient level of the red blood cells in the blood, usually measured as a lower than normal level of haemoglobin. Haemoglobin is responsible for the transportation of oxygen to the body’s tissues. Anaemia is not itself a diagnosis, but is a symptom that has another underlying cause. There are many different types and potential causes of anaemia, including Vitamin B12, folate and iron deficiencies.

Other causes include blood loss, poor diet, reactions or side effects of certain medications, genetic factors, and various problems with the bone marrow, where blood cells are made. The most common form of anaemia is caused by iron deficiency, and is particularly prevalent in women who experience blood loss by means of menstrual periods.

The reasons for iron-deficiency are numerous. They include chronic blood loss, which may occur through menstrual function, or internal bleeding due to ulcers, gastritis or worm infections in children. Other possible causes include abnormalities in iron absorption due to intestinal problems, or increased use of iron in pregnant women.

Populations most at risk of anaemia are women (as a result of menstrual function), pregnant or breastfeeding women, who may use more iron than they usually dol, vegetarians (who may not consume iron in sufficient quantities in their diet) and any person who is in negative energy balance (consuming less energy than is being used) and may be consuming a diet lacking in iron.

People with anaemia experience symptoms that are caused by the body’s inability to carry oxygen to the tissues. These symptoms include fatigue, lethargy, shortness of breath and exercise intolerance. Patients will also have a very pale complexion, and often develop cravings for unusual substances such as ice, starch or clay.

When anaemia is suspected as a potential cause of these symptoms, a blood test is performed to establish the levels of red blood cells and haemoglobin in the blood. The blood cells may also be examined under a microscope to determine the possible cause of the anaemia – in iron-deficiency anaemia, the red blood cells are much smaller than usual.

Treatment for anaemia is dependent on the cause. In the commonly caused iron-deficiency anaemia, iron supplementation and dietary changes are usually sufficient to address the deficiency and return the haemoglobin and red blood cell levels to normal. In more serious cases, a blood transfusion may be performed to return the red blood cell count to normal.

Similarly, the prognosis is also dependent on the cause and the specific type of anaemia. In the case of iron-deficiency anaemia, the deficiency is usually corrected completely through iron supplementation and dietary changes. Supplementation often needs to be continued for up to six months in order to correct any deficiencies fully.

The information provided in this article was correct at the time of publishing. At Mediclinic we endeavour to provide our patients and readers with accurate and reliable information, which is why we continually review and update our content. However, due to the dynamic nature of clinical information and medicine, some information may from time to time become outdated prior to revision.

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