With each breath, we inhale oxygen into our lungs. Oxygen is needed to nourish the organs and tissues that compose our bodies. Red blood cells work to carry oxygen molecules throughout the bloodstream with the help of a substance called haemoglobin. Anemia occurs when there are too few healthy red blood cells to transport oxygen throughout the body.
Thus, people with anemia do not receive the optimal oxygen carrying capacity in their blood. They may feel tired, appear pale, have a shortness of breath, and an elevated heartbeat.
Anemia can occur as a result of several conditions: damage to existing red blood cells, blood loss, or inadequate production of red blood cells in the bone marrow. Below are the most common forms of anemia.
- IRON-DEFICIENCY ANEMIA This is the most common type of anemia. It occurs when the body does not have enough iron to produce haemoglobin. The body recycles blood cells as a source of iron, and so blood loss, like that which can result from a heavy menstrual cycle or a bleeding ulcer can cause this iron-deficiency anemia. Other causes include poor nutrition and pregnancy. During pregnancy, iron is taken from the woman’s body to support the growing fetus.
- VITAMIN-DEFICIENCY ANEMIA Vitamin B12 and folate are both necessary for the production of healthy red blood cells. A diet low in folic acid and vitamin B12 may cause this type of anemia. If a person’s body is unable to absorb Vitamin B12, a condition called pernicious anemia may result, which affects the nervous system.
- HEMOLYTIC ANEMIA This anemia occurs when the red blood cells are destroyed more quickly than the bone marrow can replace them. It can be caused by malfunctioning immune system that destroys healthy red blood cells or by certain medications such as antibiotics or blood pressure medications.
- SICKLE CELL ANEMIA This inherited condition frequently occurs in people of African and Arabic descent. It is often associated with painful crises and can sometimes be quite serious. In people affected with sickle cell anemia, abnormal haemoglobin causes the red blood cells to become crescent shaped. These abnormal red blood cells are quickly destroyed by the body and are unable to pass through the bloodstream, which may cause severe episodes of pain.
The best way to prevent iron and Vitamin deficiency anemia is to eat a well-balanced diet of foods rich in iron, vitamin B12 and folic acid.
Examples of these types of foods include beef, leafy green vegetables, fortified breakfast cereals, and nuts.
Vitamin C increases the absorption of iron into the body; calcium decreases absorption. Certain disease may make it difficult to absorb enough of these nutrients even with adequate intake and anemia may result. Many forms of anemia cannot be prevented.
The common symptoms of anemia include fatigue, shortness of breath, elevated heartrate, chest pains, dizziness, headaches, an inability to concentrate, and feelings of coldness in the arms and legs. If the anemia is mild, there may be no symptoms at all. Blood tests are used to diagnosis anemia.
A complete blood count (CBC) indicates levels of red blood cells and haemoglobin circulating in the bloodstream. A blood smear analysis will also be performed. In this test, the blood is examined under a microscope to determine the color, size and shape of the red blood cells, which offers clues to the type of anemia present.
Additional testing may be required to pinpoint the cause of a patient’s anemia. Hemoglobin electrophoresis is used to determine if a patient’s hemolglobin molecules are abnormal. A bone marrow biopsy indicates whether the bone marrow is producing sufficient quantities of healthy red blood cells.
Each kind of anemia is treated differently. Depending on the type, doctors recommend the following:
- CHANGE IN DIET Eating foods rich in iron, folate, and vitamin B12 can increase the production of healthy red blood cells.
- SUPPLEMENTS AND MULTIVITAMINS These are prescribed in patients with low level of vitamin B12 and iron. They are taken for a period of time, until a patient is able to maintain sufficient levels of these substances in the blood stream.
- BLOOD TRANSFUSION During a blood transfusion, red blood cells from a healthy donor are given by vein to increase the blood’s oxygen-carrying capacity.