What happens when someone has anaemia?
Anaemia occurs when a patient's body does not have enough oxygen-rich blood, which produces feelings of tiredness, weakness, dizziness and headache. It is very important to treat this condition as severe or long-term anaemia could affect the heart, brain and other organs.
Blood is made up of different components including red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets and plasma, which make up the liquid part of blood. In some kinds of anaemia, all of these cells are reduced.
There are three main causes of anaemia:
- Blood loss
- A lack of red blood cells
- A high rate of destruction of red blood cells
A doctor should be consulted if any signs of symptoms of anaemia are observed. If anaemia is diagnosed, treatment will depend on the severity and cause of the disorder. There are many types of anaemia that have specific causes and characteristics:
1. Anaemia due to iron deficiency
2. Anaemia due to folic acid deficiency (folate)
3. Pernicious anaemia
4. Anaemia due to haemorrhaging
5. Aplastic anaemia
6. Haemolytic anaemia
7. Others: thalassemia, sickle-cell anaemia
The most common symptom of anaemia is tiredness and a feeling of exhaustion and weakness. People with anaemia may find they do not have enough energy for normal activities.
Other signs and symptoms of anaemia may be revealed because the heart has to work harder to pump oxygen-rich blood to the body. These are:
- Difficulty breathing
- Cold hands and feet
- A pallid complexion
- Chest pain
Who is affected by anaemia?
WHO reports state that anaemia affects 1.62 billion people around the world, or 24.8 % of the population.
It is most prevalent among children of pre-school age and least common in men. However, the sector of the population with the highest number of affected people is women who are not pregnant.
People with anaemia do not always show symptoms, and so it may be discovered during other tests. During a routine or other appointment, a doctor may ask the patient if they have any of the signs and symptoms of anaemia, or if they have ever had a health problem or illness that could cause it.
To determine the severity of the illness and find out how it originated, a brief examination is carried out which includes:
- A heart examination
- A lung examination
- An abdominal examination
The doctor may also carry out a pelvic or rectal examination to detect the source of any blood loss.
A blood test can help determine the type of anaemia and its severity. One of the indicated tests is a complete haemogram. Sometimes other tests may be required:
- A reticulocyte count: to measure the amount of immature red blood cells (reticulocytes) in the blood, and to see if the bone marrow is producing red blood cells at the correct rate.
- Tests to measure the amount of iron in the blood and body. This includes serum iron and serum ferritin. Transferrin and total iron-binding capacity are other tests to measure iron concentration.
- Haemoglobin electrophoresis: to assess the different kind of haemoglobin in the blood; can be used to diagnose the type of anaemia and also to measure the deficit of elements needed to make red blood cells (vitamin B12 and folic acid).
The purpose of treatment is to increase the amount of oxygen transported in the blood. This is achieved by increasing the number of red blood cells or the concentration of haemoglobin, an iron-rich red blood cell protein that supplies oxygen to the cells in the body. The underlying disease or cause must also be treated, if there is one.
The treatment for anaemia depends on the type, cause and severity of the illness. It may consist of:
- Changes to diet
- Nutritional supplements
- Surgical procedures
- Surgery to treat blood loss
A specialist can assess the need for a blood transfusion or blood stem cell or bone marrow transplant.