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If you’re feeling tired and weak, you might need more than just a nap or a bite to eat to regain your strength.

You may have anemia.

Anemia is the most common blood condition, affecting 3.5 million Americans.

“Anemia is a blood disorder that occurs when your body doesn’t contain enough hemoglobin or red blood cells,” said Benjamin Hohmuth, MD, director of Geisinger’s Patient Blood Management program.

Hemoglobin is an iron containing protein that allows red blood cells to carry oxygen to different parts of the body and helps in removing carbon dioxide from the body. It’s also what gives blood its red color.

Beyond feeling tired and weak, other symptoms of anemia are shortness of breath, dizziness, headaches, cold hands and feet and pale skin.  Though not common, chest pain can also be a symptom of anemia.

There are many different types of anemia. Usually, it’s mild and easily treated. However, some forms of anemia are more severe and harder to manage. There are three primary causes of anemia:

1. Significant blood loss. Anemia from blood loss over time is common in women due to menstruation and child birth but can also be caused by intestinal bleeding due 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,” said Dr. Hohmuth.

2. Decreased or faulty red blood cell production. This can result from an iron deficiency or when 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,” said Dr. Hohmuth.

3. Increased red blood cell destruction. Some causes of this type of anemia include: sickle cell anemia, an inherited genetic disorder in which red blood cells are crescent-shaped, rather than disk-shaped; liver disease; and even a reaction by your own immune system.

To determine if you have anemia, your doctor will likely ask you about your family and medical history, diet and current medications. He or she 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.

The best method for diagnosing anemia is through a simple blood test called a complete blood count (CBC).

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

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

Different types of anemia have different treatments, depending on the cause and level of 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,” said Dr. Hohmuth. “Oral and intravenous iron supplements are also available.”  

In addition to treating the anemia, it also important to establish the cause of blood loss.  Your doctor may recommend testing, such as colonoscopy, to find the source of the blood loss.

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,” said Dr. Hohmuth.

If your blood test shows that you are anemic, talk with your doctor to learn more about anemia and to discuss treatment options. In certain cases, you may be referred to a blood management program for support.