Anemia is a blood condition that results in too few red blood cells in your blood stream. There are several different types of anemia, including pernicious anemia, a cause of vitamin B12 deficiency. Below are some of the most frequently asked questions about anemia as posed to the medical community; find out how to prevent anemia and recognize the symptoms.
What is anemia?
Anemia is a condition in which you suffer severely depleted red blood cells, and as a result also lack oxygen, which is carried by red blood cells’ hemoglobin. With pernicious anemia, a depletion of vitamin B12 results in large, misshapen red blood cells that are unable to leave the bone marrow and deliver red blood cells to your body’s tissues and cells.
What causes anemia?
Anemia may occur as a result of chronic illness, such as rheumatoid arthritis or kidney disorder, or it may be caused by vitamin malabsorption, such as vitamin B12 deficiency. In rare cases, anemia is inherited. Sickle cell anemia, for example, may be passed down in the family.
Other causes of anemia are pregnancy, gastrointestinal disorders, and blood loss from surgery or injury.
How many types of anemia are there?
There are hundreds of types of anemia, all varying by cause. The most common forms of anemia are:
- Megaloblastic anemia (including pernicious anemia) from vitamin B12 and/or folate deficiency
- Iron deficiency anemia
- Aplastic anemia or thalassemia from bone marrow and/or stem cell disorder
- Sickle cell anemia (inherited)
- Anemia caused by blood loss
- Anemia caused by depleted hormones, such as occurs with kidney disease, hypothyroidism, lupus, or rheumatoid arthritis
What are the symptoms of anemia?
The symptoms of anemia vary according to the cause and severity of depleted red blood cells. The onset of vitamin B12 deficiency anemia usually manifests itself as fatigue, sluggish thinking, and painful tingling and numbness in the extremities (hands and feet).
Here are some common symptoms of anemia:
- Chronic fatigue
- Confusion (“brain fog”)
- Short-term memory loss
- Frequent bruising
- Shortness of breath
- Heart palpitations following exercise
- Tinnitus (ear ringing)
- Unusual cravings for non-food items (ice, dirt)
- Muscle cramps
- “Pins and needles” in the hands and feet
- Painful numbness
- Stiff arms or legs
- Difficulty walking
Treatments for anemia
Depending on the cause of anemia, several treatments are effective at replenishing red blood cells and preventing further complications.
For vitamin B12 deficiency anemia, it is essential to supplement with large doses of vitamin B12, immediately. Usually, treatment is given in the form of vitamin B12 injections, to be taken every week, and sometimes tapered off to monthly doses. For many patients of pernicious anemia, additional doses of over-the-counter (OTC) vitamin B12 supplements are helpful to keep symptoms of fatigue from flaring up and to maintain healthy levels of vitamin B12 between doctor’s visits.
Folate and iron deficiency anemia are likewise treatable with regimented vitamin supplementation.
When anemia is caused by chronic illnesses, the only way to replenish red blood cells is to treat the underlying disease. In some cases, blood transfusions or hormone therapy may help for maintaining red blood cells.
For bone marrow anemia, treatments range from bone marrow transplants to chemotherapy.
Treatments for sickle cell anemia include oxygen therapy, pain relievers, antibiotics, blood transfusions, and vitamin supplementation. Certain cancer drugs are also sometimes used to treat sick cell anemia sufferers.
Not all types of anemia are preventable. To prevent vitamin deficiency anemia, such as vitamin B12 deficiency, eat a healthy diet full of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and protein sources.
Vitamin B12 occurs naturally in animal-based foods such as beef, chicken, liver, seafood, milk, and eggs. Still, it’s important to test routinely for vitamin B12 deficiency, as vitamin malabsorption may prevent you from digesting vitamin B12 naturally from the foods you eat.
Iron deficiency anemia and folate deficiency anemia may be prevented by including leafy green vegetables, iron fortified cereals, pasta, and beans.
To find out more about inherited forms of anemia, seek a genetic counselor.
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