Anemia is a condition in which the number of red blood cells or level of hemoglobin (the protein inside red blood cells that carries oxygen) is lower than normal. While many types of anemia are mild and easily corrected, certain types of anemia can be severe, chronic, or life-threatening.
Overview and Symptoms
There are many forms of anemia, including:
- Iron deficiency anemia– the most common form of anemia, caused by a shortage of iron in the blood due to significant blood loss through menstruation, surgery, or certain medical conditions
- Vitamin deficiency anemia– caused when the body does not receive sufficient folate and vitamin B-12 to produce enough healthy red blood cells; some people may consume enough of the vitamin but their bodies can’t properly process the vitamins
- Anemia caused by cancer or chronic disease– diseases that involve inflammation – such as cancer, autoimmune disorders, or long-term infections – can decrease the production of red blood cells.
- Aplastic anemia– a life-threatening type of bone marrow failure in which the bone marrow doesn’t produce sufficient red blood cells
- Fanconi anemia– an inherited form of bone marrow failure in which the bone marrow produces decreased amounts of all types of blood cells
- Hemolytic anemia– the low red blood cell count is caused by the destruction – rather than the underproduction – of red blood cells. It occurs when red blood cells are destroyed faster than the bone marrow can make them.
- Sickle cell anemia– an inherited blood disorder in which the body makes red blood cells in the shape of a sickle. These sickle cells tend to cluster and cause blockages, and they live only about 14 days (compared to 120 days for normal red blood cells).
- Thalassemia– a group of inherited blood disorders in which the genes that produce hemoglobin are broken.
In addition to reviewing your medical history, your hematologist will request a physical examination, blood testing, and laboratory analysis to diagnose your particular blood disorder.
Hematologists and hematopathologists (pathologists who specialize in blood conditions) examine a sample of your blood under a microscope to analyze red cell, white cell and platelet morphology (shape). Sometimes additional tests, such as a bone marrow biopsy, may be necessary.
Our physicians are especially skilled at discerning benign blood diseases from underlying cancer-related hematologic conditions, and then tailoring care accordingly.
Interventions for mild to moderate anemias may involve:
- Watchful waiting to monitor symptom progression
- Oral or intravenous medications
- Injections, including vitamin B12 or coagulation factors
- Blood transfusions
- Therapeutic phlebotomy to remove units of blood at specific intervals
Life-threatening anemias – which can include aplastic anemia, Fanconi anemia, sickle cell anemia, and thalassemia – may be treated with bone marrow or stem cell transplantation, or with surgery to remove the spleen.