Healthy Living

Anemia: The Top 10 Questions

1 Is anemia curable?

Yes, anemia is curable even though it usually depends on the type of anemia you have. The most common type of anemia is iron deficiency anemia. This type of anemia is treatable with iron supplements as well as blood transfusions.

Anemia due to a deficiency of vitamin B12 or folate is also curable. Taking vitamin supplements and eating healthy will allow your body to increase the number of red blood cells.

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However, there are also other types of anemia that are chronic and cannot be treated. Some types are even hereditary. The types of anemia that cannot be cured include thalassemia, sickle cell anemia, anemia associated with chronic diseases, and autoimmune hemolytic anemia.

2 Is anemia chronic?

Anemia is a medical condition characterized by a lack of red blood cells that carry oxygen to tissues and organs all over the human body. Anemia can either be acute or chronic. If anemia persists for more than six months or even longer, anemia is considered to be chronic. The normal life span of erythrocytes is about 120 days, so it takes some time for anemia to develop and become noticeable.

Moreover, chronic anemia can be primary or secondary. Primary chronic anemia is commonly known as the true chronic anemia. The degree of the primary chronic anemia varies from its etiology and from one patient to the another. Primary chronic anemia is defined as a hemoglobin level of more than 2 standard deviations (SD) below the normal range for a certain age.

Secondary chronic anemia is an anemia that lasts for more than six months, which often results from an underlying medical condition. Various non-hematological problems that can lead to chronic anemia include tuberculosis, inflammatory bowel disease, chronic renal failure, and chronic blood loss.

The signs and symptoms of chronic anemia include:

Is anemia a symptom of multiple sclerosis?

Multiple sclerosis is a disease affecting the central nervous system. This disease is characterized by an autoimmune damage of the myelin sheath and other structures of nervous system leading to problems with nerve impulse conduction. Multiple sclerosis is a chronic disease that has no cure. Being a chronic medical condition, it affects the quality of life, causing various signs and symptoms. Anemia is not directly linked to multiple sclerosis. However, suffering from a chronic medical condition such as multiple sclerosis increases a patient's risk of developing anemia as well. Usually, anemia results from an iron deficiency such as vitamin B12 or folate deficiency.

Taking iron supplements and vitamins can help you prevent anemia.

3 Can you die from anemia?

Yes, anemia can cause death if the affected individual is left untreated. However, it is important to remember that anemia is more of a state rather than an actual medical condition. A person is described as anemic when he or she has a fewer than the minimum number of red blood cells in the bloodstream. Such a state could be caused by a lack of iron, folic acid, vitamin A, and vitamin B12 in the body. Most often, the problem is sickle-cell anemia, which is a hereditary disease. However, death can also result from an excessive bleeding.

To treat anemia, the underlying cause is first addressed. In the case of iron deficiencies, it involves supplements and transfusions after a severe bleeding. For sickle cell anemia, treatment has to be continuous throughout the individual’s lifetime, and it involves medications, blood transfusions, and palliative care for the symptoms. If care is not provided to the individual in due time, red blood cells will continue to diminish and he or she may eventually die of exsanguination (severe blood loss). Besides this eventual occurrence, severe forms of anemia can have serious side effects such as stroke, which can also be lethal.

What are the stages of anemia?

Anemia is a condition rather than a disease. The condition is characterized by a low number of healthy red blood cells. Normally, the red blood cells contain a protein called hemoglobin, which play an important role by carrying oxygen all over the human body. There are more than 400 known types of anemia. Moreover, every form of anemia has its stages and a period of progression. The most common type of anemia is iron deficiency anemia. 

The following are the five stages of iron deficiency:

  • Stage 1 – iron stores in the bone marrow are lower than normal. The hemoglobin levels and serum iron levels remain normal, while serum ferritin levels are lower than <20 ng/mL. The levels of transferrin are increased as a compensatory mechanism.
  • Stage 2 – the production process of red blood cells, known as erythropoiesis is impaired. The levels of transferrin are increased, while the levels of iron and transferrin saturation are decreased.
  • Stage 3 – anemia occurs, but the red blood cells have still a normal appearance.
  • Stage 4 – red blood cells become microcytic and hypochromic.
  • Stage 5 – the signs and symptoms of iron deficiency anemia become noticeable.

4 What will happen if anemia is left untreated?

There are various types of anemia known depending on its cause. The common signs and symptoms of anemia include weakness, fatigue, dizziness, headaches, shortness of breath, pale skin, brittle hair and nails, cold head and feet, and irregular or faster heartbeats. These signs and symptoms are mild to moderate but might get worse as anemia progresses.

Certain people have a higher risk of developing anemia than others. The risk factors for anemia are:

  • Menstruation – women having heavy and prolonged menstrual periods increase their risk of developing anemia due to constant blood loss.
  • Poor diet – consuming a poor diet that is low in iron, folate, and other vitamins can increase one's risk of developing anemia.
  • Pregnancy – being pregnant increases the risk of developing anemia as the iron needs of the mother is increased due to the developing baby inside the womb.
  • Having a chronic medical condition – if people are diagnosed with chronic medical conditions such as cancer, kidney failure, liver failure, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and multiple sclerosis, they are at higher risk of developing anemia.
  • Intestinal disorders – having Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and celiac disease increases one's risk of having anemia due to malabsorption.
  • Age – children and people over the age of 65 are usually at risk of developing anemia.

If left untreated, anemia can lead to serious health problems such as:

  • Severe fatigue – it is common in cases of severe and chronic anemia. It interferes with daily life and activities, making simple tasks seem impossible to do.
  • Heart problems – can develop due to anemia. The heart exerts more pressure by pumping more blood to compensate for the lack of oxygen in the bloodstream. Oxygen is needed by the body's tissues and organs to function normally. Chronic and severe anemia can lead to an enlarged heart and even heart failure.
  • Pregnancy complications – are more likely to occur if anemia is left untreated while pregnant. Preterm childbirth is the most common pregnancy complication along with low birth weight.
  • Death – if the inherited types of anemia such as thalassemia, autoimmune hemolytic anemia, and sickle cell anemia are severe, the conditions could become life–threatening.

What causes a person to be anemic?

Anemia is a condition that is characterized by a lower count of circulating red blood cells. It has been estimated that about 1.62 billion people worldwide suffer from anemia at some point in their life.

There are more than 400 known types of anemia, which are divided into three main groups, depending on their cause:

  • Anemia due to blood loss
  • Anemia due to a decreased production or a faulty production of red blood cells
  • Anemia due to the destruction of red blood cells

The most common type of anemia is iron deficiency anemia, which is an anemia resulting from a blood loss. Blood loss can be either acute or chronic. An acute blood loss that leads to anemia results from a surgery, trauma, injury or childbirth. A chronic blood loss that leads to anemia usually results from cancer, stomach ulcers, and heavy menstrual periods.

Anemia resulting from a decreased or faulty production of red blood cells is often related to a lack of iron, vitamin B12, or folate. The bone marrow normally produces stem cells, which later develop into red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. If there is a deficiency of vitamins and minerals in the body, the production of red blood cells in the bone marrow can also be affected. Moreover, if the red blood cells produced are faulty, anemia also develops.

Anemia resulting from the destruction of red blood cells occurs due to excessive hemolysis. Red blood cells live for about 120 days. In a hemolytic anemia, the RBCs are removed and destroyed from the bloodstream before their normal life span. This type of anemia is usually hereditary and has no cure. However, its signs and symptoms can be managed by various medications and blood transfusions.

What is hemolytic anemia?

Hemolytic anemia occurs when there are more red blood cells destroyed in the bloodstream than red blood cells produced in the bone marrow. Hemolytic anemia can be either intrinsic or extrinsic.

Intrinsic hemolytic anemia occurs in cases where the produced red blood cells from the bone marrow are defective, which means that they are not functional and that they are not able to carry the necessary amount of oxygen throughout the body. Intrinsic hemolytic anemia is often a genetic condition that is inherited from the parents. Thalassemia and sickle cell anemia are types of intrinsic hemolytic anemia.

Extrinsic hemolytic anemia occurs when the spleen destroys more red blood cells that it should, even healthy red blood cells. The condition is often known as autoimmune hemolytic anemia. However, an increased destruction of healthy red blood cells in the spleen can also occur due to tumors, leukemia, lymphoma, infections, various autoimmune disorders, or as a side effect of various medications such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, antibiotics, etc.

One of the most severe forms of hemolytic anemia is the one caused by a blood transfusion when a wrong blood type is given. In cases when a wrong blood type is given for blood transfusion, the existing blood cells will start to create antibodies and fight the new blood being transfused, leading to a fast destruction of red blood cells.

What are the symptoms of iron deficiency?

The symptoms of iron deficiency anemia may vary from mild, moderate, to severe depending on the levels of hemoglobin. The common signs and symptoms of this type of anemia include:

  • weakness
  • general fatigue
  • dizziness
  • headaches
  • pale skin
  • shortness of breath
  • tachycardia
  • irregular heartbeats
  • brittle nails
  • cold hands and feet
  • a tingling sensation in the legs

Can anemia be permanently cured?

Some types of anemia can be successfully treated such as iron deficiency anemia and anemia caused by a lack of vitamin B12 or folate. Unfortunately, some forms of hereditary anemia such as sickle cell anemia, thalassemia, and hemolytic anemia can’t be cured. Their symptoms can only be maintained under control.