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Looking pale and feeling rundown? There’s a difference between run-of-the-mill fatigue and something more.

Occasional fatigue and headaches might not ring any alarm bells for you. But if these symptoms are frequent, you may want to check in with your primary care doctor — it could be anemia.

The good news? A simple blood test can get you on the path to feeling good again.

What is anemia?

Anemia is a blood condition that happens when your body doesn’t have enough hemoglobin, or red blood cells. 

Hemoglobin is a protein that contains iron. It allows red blood cells to carry oxygen to different parts of the body and helps remove carbon dioxide. It’s also what gives blood its red color.

If you’re low on hemoglobin, you can develop symptoms like fatigue and weakness. The good news — anemia is common and treatable.

Symptoms of anemia

Common symptoms of anemia include fatigue and weakness. You may also notice:  

  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness
  • Headaches
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Pale skin  

Though not common, chest pain can also be a symptom of anemia.

Types and causes of anemia

Anemia is usually mild and easily treated. However, some forms are more severe and harder to manage. The three primary causes of anemia are:

  1. Significant blood loss. Anemia from blood loss over time is common in women due to menstruation and childbirth. But it can also be caused by intestinal bleeding related to ulcers, intestinal cancers, inflammatory bowel disease, hemorrhoids or other conditions. 

    “Anemia occurs when you lose more iron through slow or intermittent bleeding than you are taking in through your diet,” says Dr. Tyler Policht, primary care provider at Geisinger Pittston.

  2. Decreased or faulty red blood cell production. This can result from an iron deficiency or if your body doesn’t get enough vitamin B12 or folate. 

    “Decreased red blood cell production can also be related to other serious health problems such as chronic kidney disease, chronic inflammation, cancer or a bone marrow disorder,” says Dr. Policht.

  3. Increased red blood cell destruction. Some causes of this type of anemia include:

    • Sickle cell anemia, an inherited genetic disorder that causes red blood cells to be crescent-shaped, rather than disk-shaped
    • Liver disease
    • A reaction by your own immune system

Getting a diagnosis

To determine if you have anemia, your doctor will likely ask you about your family and medical history, diet and medications. They may also listen to your heart and lungs for rapid beating or irregular breathing and feel your abdomen to measure the size of your liver and spleen.

A simple blood test called a complete blood count (CBC) is the best way to diagnose anemia.

“A CBC test checks hemoglobin levels and the number and size of red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets in your blood,” says Dr. Policht.

If any counts are low or abnormal, you may have anemia or another blood disorder.

Treatments for anemia

Different types of anemia have different treatments, depending on the cause and severity.

“Anemia caused by an iron deficiency may be treated by incorporating more iron-rich foods like meat, leafy greens, beans and iron-fortified foods into your diet,” says Dr. Policht. “Oral and intravenous iron supplements are also available.”  

In addition to treating the anemia, your doctor will want to establish the cause of blood loss and may recommend testing, such as colonoscopy, to find the source.

Occasionally severe anemia is treated with a blood transfusion. “Fortunately, blood transfusions can usually be avoided if the anemia is recognized early and evaluated quickly,” says Dr. Policht.

If your blood test shows that you’re anemic, talk with your doctor about treatment options. In certain cases, you may be referred to a blood management program for support.

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