Understanding Anemia: Types, Symptoms and Treatment

Anemia is the most prevalent blood condition in the U.S. Annually, the condition accounts for 2.8 million visits to physician offices with anemia as the primary diagnosis, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Anemia is one of several medical conditions that can cause fatigue and weakness, says Dr. Neha Vyas of the Cleveland Clinic. Its effects can be so mild that they are unrecognized or severe. Although many cases of anemia are mild and easily treated, it can be life-threatening if untreated or not treated appropriately. Anemia is also known as iron-poor blood, low blood and tired blood.

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Types of Anemia

In general, the causes anemia can be divided into three groups:

— Anemia caused by blood loss.

— Anemia caused by decreased or faulty red blood cell production.

— Anemia caused by destruction of red blood cells.

Here are some of the different types of anemia:

Iron-deficiency anemia.

— Vitamin deficiency anemia.

— Anemia of chronic disease.

— Sickle-cell anemia.

— Hemolytic anemia.

— Aplastic anemia.

Iron-deficiency anemia. This type of anemia is caused by a shortage of iron in the body, says Dr. Carrie Thompson of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. “Your bone marrow needs iron to make hemoglobin, which is a protein molecule in the red blood cells,” Thompson says. “Without enough iron, the body can’t produce enough hemoglobin for your red blood cells.”

Vitamin deficiency anemia. This type of anemia occurs when your diet lacks enough folate, vitamin B12 and other key nutrients needed to produce healthy red blood cells, Thompson says. “Sometimes people get enough B12 through their diets, but their bodies aren’t able to process or absorb the vitamin,” she says. “This can also lead to vitamin deficiency anemia.”

Anemia of chronic disease. This type of anemia is the result of certain chronic conditions, such as cancer, HIV/AIDS, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease and other chronic inflammatory diseases, Thompson says. “These medical conditions can interfere with the production of red blood cells, which in turn may cause chronic anemia,” she says. For example, someone with renal failure is often at risk for anemia.

Sickle-cell anemia. An inherited condition, sickle-cell anemia is a condition in which the body makes sickle-shaped red blood cells. “These irregularly shaped red blood cells die prematurely, resulting in a chronic shortage of red blood cells,” Thompson says.

Hemolytic anemia. When red blood cells are destroyed faster than the bone marrow can replace them, it can lead to hemolytic anemia. Hemolytic anemia can be inherited or develop later in life.

Aplastic anemia. This is a rare, life-threatening anemia that is caused by a decrease in the bone marrow’s ability to produce red blood cells, Thompson says. Infections and autoimmune diseases are considered to be common causes of aplastic anemia.

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Risk Factors for Anemia

Anyone can develop anemia, but there are many factors that may increase your risk for developing anemia, including:

— A diet lacking in iron, vitamin B12 and folate.

— A history of intestinal disorders (for example, Crohn’s disease and celiac disease) that affect the absorption of nutrients.

— Blood loss due to menstruation.

— Pregnancy.

— Chronic conditions such as cancer, renal or liver failure may increase one’s risk of developing anemia, because these conditions may cause a decrease in red blood cells.

— A family history of an inherited anemia, such as sickle cell anemia.

— A history of certain infections, blood diseases and autoimmune disorders.

— Exposure to toxic chemicals.

— Taking certain medications that affect red blood cell production and lead to anemia.

Signs and Symptoms

Many signs and symptoms can signal anemia, though some may initially go unnoticed. These can increase in intensity as the anemia worsens, Vyas says. When a person does not have symptoms, anemia is often discovered during routine blood tests.

Signs and symptoms of anemia include:

— Fatigue.

— Lightheadedness.

— Chest palpitations.

— Shortness of breath.

— Cold intolerance.

— Women may experience heavy menstrual flow.

How Is Anemia Diagnosed?

Anemia is typically diagnosed by conducting a thorough health history and physical exam, along with blood work, Vyas says. Typically, your doctor will ask about your medical history and order a blood test called a CBC, or complete blood count, to examine the various types of cells in the blood.

[See: 9 Things You Didn’t Know About Sickle Cell Disease.]


The treatment of anemia depends on its cause, type and severity. For example, with iron deficiency anemia — which is one of the more common types of the condition — it’s crucial to identify the cause to treat it appropriately, says Dr. Sunitha Posina, a board-certified New York City-area internist.

If IDA is caused by blood loss in a menstruating woman, it’s usually treated with oral iron supplements or an iron fluid mixture administered intravenously. If the IDA is attributable to internal blood loss in a non-menstruating woman or a man, the patient should have an endoscopy or colonoscopy to identify the source of bleeding and determine the best course of treatment, Posina says.


Although not all kinds of anemia can be prevented, certain ones — like iron deficiency anemia and the types associated with insufficient intake of vitamin C — can sometimes be warded off with a healthy diet, Posina says. Foods rich in vitamin C, for example, include oranges, lemons, strawberries, papaya, broccoli, kale, guava and parsley.

Consuming foods rich in iron can also help stave off anemia, she says. Such foods include spinach, beans, lentils, red meat, pumpkin seeds, tofu, shellfish and quinoa.

It’s also important to consume foods that contain vitamin B12. Seafood, eggs, meat and dairy products contain healthy amounts of the vitamin.

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Understanding Anemia: Types, Symptoms and Treatment originally appeared on usnews.com

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