Anemia treatment should be explored as anemia is a common health condition that can cause a wide range of symptoms and, in some cases, lead to serious health problems. There are several types of anemia, each with their own range of symptoms, causes and anemia treatments. While anemia can cause distressing symptoms, most cases can be easily treated.
What is Anemia?
Anemia is a health condition characterized by a reduction in the number of healthy red blood cells in the blood. When anemia is present, the level of hemoglobin in the blood is lower than normal. Hemoglobin is a molecule present in red blood cells, and is responsible for transporting oxygen around the human body. When hemoglobin levels are low, there is inadequate oxygen supply to the tissues of the body.
What Causes Anemia?
The most common cause of anemia is iron deficiency. Iron is needed to make hemoglobin and ensure healthy red blood cells. Blood loss is a common cause of iron deficiency, as extra iron is needed in order to replace the blood cells lost. Chronic blood loss can occur for various reasons, including bleeding from hemorrhoids, heavy periods and intestinal bleeding.
Intestinal bleeding is a common cause of iron-deficiency anemia, particularly in men and post-menopausal women. Intestinal bleeding can have several different causes, including peptic ulcers, stomach or bowel cancer and regular intake of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).
Iron deficiency can also occur due to a lack of iron in the diet, or an inability to absorb iron from food. In addition, the human body needs adequate intake of vitamin C in order to ensure the proper absorption of iron. Pregnancy can also deplete the body’s iron stores. (If you are having trouble getting pregnant, low iron levels can effect your ability to get pregnant by up to 60% so get checked for anemia.)
Deficiency of vitamin B12 and folic acid can also lead to anemia. Vitamin B12 and folic acid are needed in order for the body to make healthy red blood cells. Deficiency of these nutrients can lead the body to make abnormally large red blood cells, which are unable to function correctly. Vitamin B12 deficiency is most common in the elderly, as older people are less able to absorb vitamin B12 from food sources.
Vegans may also be at an increased risk, due to inadequate nutrient intake. Some medications, such as PPI (proton pump inhibitors) are also thought to increase the risk of anemia, although no conclusive proof of a link has yet been found.
The most common cause of vitamin B12 deficiency is an autoimmune disease called pernicious anemia, which damages the stomach. An autoimmune disease is a condition in which the immune system attacks healthy cells within the body. With pernicious anemia, the body is unable to absorb vitamin B12 through the stomach, leading to deficiency. Pernicious anemia is most common in older people, particularly women. A family history of the disease or other autoimmune diseases increases the risk of developing pernicious anemia.
Aplastic anemia is a rare form of anemia, caused by damaged bone marrow. As red blood cells are produced in the bone marrow, damaged bone marrow is unable to create healthy blood cells. Hemolytic anemia is a rare condition in which red blood cells are destroyed by the body.
Other causes of anemia include cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, coeliac disease, kidney failure and bowel disease. Medical implants, such as heart valves, can sometimes destroy blood cells, leading to anemia.
Symptoms of Anemia
Symptoms will depend on the type, cause and severity of anemia. In some cases, symptoms may take several months to appear. Common symptoms associated with anemia include:
- Excessive tiredness
- Feeling faint or unsteady
- Low mood.
As the condition progresses, symptoms may also include:
- Shortness of breath
- Brittle nails
- Pale complexion
- Sore gums, tongue or mouth
- Pica (cravings or a strong desire to eat non-food items, such as ice, chalk, soil or paper)
Less common symptoms associated with iron-deficiency anemia include:
- Feeling itchy
- Hair loss
- Difficulty swallowing food and drink
- Changes in the sense of taste
- Ulcers or sores at the corners of the mouth
- An unusually smooth tongue.
Some cases of restless leg syndrome (RLS), which causes unpleasant sensations in the legs, have also been attributed to iron-deficiency anemia.
Symptoms associated specifically with B12 deficiency include:
- Yellow tinge to the skin
- Mouth ulcers
- Glossitis (sore, red tongue)
- A change in the sense of touch
- A change in the ability to feel pain
- Changes to vision
Left untreated, anemia affects the immune system and increases vulnerability to infections and illness. In some cases, severe anemia can lead to serious problems with the heart and lungs, including heart failure. Pregnant women with anemia are at a higher risk of developing complications in pregnancy and giving birth to an underweight baby.
Diagnosis usually involves a simple blood test to determine the levels of hemoglobin and the health of red blood cells. Sometimes, the doctor may also want to check for a protein called ferritin, which stores iron.
If anemia is suspected, the doctor may ask questions about family health history, diet, menstrual cycle, current medications, ongoing health problems and other symptoms. A physical examination may also be required if the cause of anemia is suspected to be heavy menstruation, intestinal bleeding, rectal bleeding or heart failure. It is important to verify you have it so you can explore proper anemia treatment.
Medical Anemia Treatment
Unless the underlying cause of anemia is obvious, medical tests may be necessary to determine the cause. Any underlying medical problems should be assessed and treated.
Iron-deficiency anemia can usually be treated with iron supplements. Ferrous sulphate is the most commonly prescribed iron supplement, but some people experience strong side effects, including nausea, heartburn, constipation and diarrhoea. These side effects can usually be reduced by taking the supplement with food.
However, if the side effects become intolerable, supplements may be switched to ferrous gluconate, a less potent supplement that produces fewer negative reactions. Iron supplements for anemia treatment are usually prescribed for a period of 3-6 months, although some people may need ongoing supplementation to prevent the condition recurring.
In mild cases of iron-deficiency anemia, supplements may not be necessary. Simple dietary changes may be sufficient to treat the condition. Referral to a dietician may be offered in these cases. It is also important ensure an adequate intake of vitamin C, as vitamin C is necessary for the absorption of iron.
Anemia caused by vitamin B12 deficiency can usually be treated with vitamin B12 supplements. In the first instance, vitamin B12 is administered by injection, and later in tablet form. However, where the body has trouble absorbing vitamin B12 through the stomach, such as in the case of pernicious anemia, ongoing B12 injections may be necessary. Folic acid deficiency can also often be treated with supplements. Folic acid tablets are usually necessary for 3-4 months, or until folate levels return to normal.
If treatment does not work, referral to a specialist may be necessary. In severe cases of anemia, a blood transfusion may be needed to improve the condition.
Anemia and Food
Anemia treatment can also be started with what you eat. Anemia can be the result of a poor diet or inadequate nutrient intake. While medical attention may initially be needed to treat anemia, dietary changes can help to prevent a recurrence of the condition. Increasing intake of the appropriate nutrients, such as iron, vitamin B12 and folic acid, can help to treat and prevent anemia.
Foods rich in iron include red meat, liver, leafy green vegetables, eggs, dried fruit (particularly dried apricots), sardines, beans and nuts. Foods rich in vitamin B12 include meat, poultry, fish, eggs, milk and cheese. Foods rich in folic acid include broccoli, green cabbage, nuts, pulses and peas.
As vitamin C intake is also essential to ensure iron absorption, foods high in vitamin C, such as citrus fruits, papaya, strawberries, broccoli and kiwi fruit, should also be included as part of a healthy diet.
Some foods and drinks, such as wholegrain cereals, tea and coffee, reduce the absorption of iron, and should only be eaten in small amounts. Antacids and medications used to decrease the production of stomach acid can also reduce iron uptake.
Anemia treatment can usually be completed successfully with a combination of medication and dietary changes. Serious complications are rare, particularly if the underlying cause is addressed.