You may have heard the phrase “anemic” before, meaning something that is weak, and wondered exactly what anemia is.  It affects more people than you might think — and is a particular problem for women and girls once they begin menstruation.  Read on to find out more about anemia.

What is Anemia?

When a person has anemia, this means that they do not have enough hemoglobin, the proteins in the red blood cells that take oxygen from the lungs and bring it throughout the rest of the body.  Hemoglobin levels of less than 13.5 for men or less than 12 for women are considered to be anemic; with children, the levels will vary depending on their age.

Anemia is the most common blood disorder in the United States and 3 million Americans are affected by it.

How Do You Know if You Have Anemia?

There are some definite signs and symptoms that let you know you might have anemia. These include:

  • Feeling tired all the time, even if you get enough sleep
  • Pale skin
  • Muscle weakness
  • Feeling winded or short of breath
  • A heartbeat that is irregular or feels to fast
  • Dizziness and giddiness
  • Hands and feet that get cold easily

What Causes Anemia?

While there are many different conditions that can cause anemia, there are three basics reasons why anemia happens:

  1. The body is losing red blood cells faster than it can make them (such as with heavy menstrual periods or a bleeding ulcer)
  2. The body is not making enough red blood cells (such as with aplastic anemia).
  3. The body is actively destroying red blood cells (such as with hemolytic anemia).

What are the Different Kinds of Anemia?

There are several different kinds of anemia, including:

  • Iron deficiency anemia, where the body lacks enough iron to make enough hemoglobin
  • Anemia due to folate or B12 deficiency, where the body does not have enough of these vitamins to make hemoglobin
  • Aplastic anemia, where the body’s bone marrow reduces the amount of red blood cells that it makes
  • Hemolytic anemia, where the body destroys its own red blood cells; one common type of hemolytic anemia is sickle cell anemia, which is a particular problem for those of African American descent
  • Anemia due to a chronic disease, where the body become anemic due to another medical condition such as bone marrow disease or digestive diseases like Crohn’s disease

Who is at Risk for Anemia?

There are many risk factors for anemia; the most common ones include:

  • Women who are pregnant or who have heavy or long periods
  • A diet low in iron or B vitamins (vegetarian or vegan diets are particularly at risk for being low in these nutrients)
  • Family history of this condition
  • Other medication conditions such as cancer, Crohn’s disease, thyroid disease or rheumatoid arthritis

How Does a Doctor Know if Someone has Anemia?

If a doctor suspects that someone has anemia, he or she will perform a physical, ask about signs and symptoms that the patient is experiencing, and do blood tests like a complete blood count (that measures the number of red blood cells) and a test of measure the levels of hemoglobin in someone’s system.

How is Anemia Treated?

Anemia treatment varies a lot — and depends upon what is causing the condition in the first place. Possible treatments include:

  • Eating a diet that is rich in iron, Vitamin B12 and folate
  • Taking supplements of iron, folate and B12
  • Receiving B12 shots if the body is not able to absorb B12 through food, as is the case with a condition called pernicious anemia.
  • Treating the underlying cause of the anemia, such as a stomach ulcer or heavy periods
  • A blood transfusion if the anemia is severe
  • In the case of sickle cell anemia, the administration of oxygen and the use of a medication called hydroxyurea

In short, although anemia can be a serious condition, there are also ways to treat it, many of which include things like supplements or lifestyle changes like a diet which is richer in necessary nutrients.  Often, just these simple treatments can help relieve the symptoms of this condition.