Feeling tired? Looking pale? It could be anemia.
This common condition is easily diagnosable (and treatable). A simple blood test can get you on the path to feeling your best.
What is anemia?
“Anemia occurs when you lose more iron through slow or intermittent bleeding than you are taking in through your diet,” says Tyler Policht, MD, primary care provider at Geisinger Pittston.
This condition 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.
You’re at risk for anemia if you:
- Are a menstruating female, especially if you have heavy periods
- Eat a vegetarian or vegan diet
- Donate blood often
- Are pregnant
- Have gastrointestinal conditions like celiac disease or ulcerative colitis
- Have chronic conditions like cancer, diabetes or kidney disease
- Are over 65
Other risk factors include:
- Exposure to toxic chemicals
- Excessive alcohol consumption
- Taking certain medications
- Having a family history of certain inherited types of anemia
What are the symptoms of anemia?
When anemia first develops, you may not feel any different. As it progresses, your symptoms may get more frequent and may be more intense. And they may differ depending on the type you have.
Common symptoms of anemia include fatigue and weakness. You may also notice:
- Shortness of breath
- Cold hands and feet
- Pale skin
- Brain fog
- Trouble concentrating
- Numb or tingling feet or hands
- Brittle nails and hair
- Restless legs syndrome
- Desire to eat non-food items (also called pica), like ice, dirt or clay
“Though not common, chest pain can also be a symptom,” Dr. Policht notes. You may also have a reduced appetite, lightheadedness when you stand or lower libido.
If you’re dealing with symptoms, contact your healthcare provider. They can order tests to determine the type of anemia you have and help you find the right course of treatment.
Types of anemia
There are a few different types of anemia, including:
When stem cells in your bone marrow don’t produce enough red blood cells, it can cause aplastic anemia. This rare form of anemia can develop at any age. And symptoms can range from mild to severe.
Iron deficiency anemia
This is the most common type of anemia. Iron plays a key role in the body, protecting cells and maintaining healthy nails, hair and skin. You absorb iron from the foods you eat. But if you don’t eat enough iron-rich foods, or your body can’t absorb iron, it can lead to a deficiency.
Vitamin deficiency anemia
Lower-than-normal amounts of vitamin B12 and folate can lead to vitamin deficiency anemia. That lack of vitamins can cause your body to produce fewer red blood cells.
“This blood condition happens when red blood cells get destroyed quicker than your body can replenish them,” says Dr. Policht. This type of anemia can be genetic. Or you can develop it later.
Sickle cell anemia
This type of genetic blood condition affects the shape of the red blood cells your body produces. Healthy red blood cells are flexible and round, allowing them to move freely when delivering oxygen to the body. Sickle cell anemia causes red blood cells to be crescent shaped and rigid. That means they have trouble moving through the bloodstream. Sickle cell anemia commonly affects people of African American, Middle Eastern or Mediterranean heritage.
Treatments for anemia
Anemia is treatable and easy to manage. Depending on the type and severity of your anemia, your provider may recommend some of these treatments:
Some forms of anemia can be managed by making changes to your diet. Your provider may recommend eating a balanced diet rich in iron, folate and vitamins B12 and C.
“Foods high in vitamin C can help you absorb iron better,” Dr. Policht says.
Not sure where to start? Incorporate foods like:
- Red meat, fish and poultry
- Dark, leafy greens
- Cruciferous veggies like broccoli and brussels sprouts
- Beans and legumes
- Iron-fortified breads and cereals
- Dairy products
- Citrus fruit
- Colorful peppers
If you're vegetarian or vegan, your healthcare provider may recommend seeing a nutritionist. They can help find dietary changes that work for you.
Other lifestyle changes Dr. Policht recommends are quitting smoking, exercising and reducing your caffeine intake.
One of the most common ways to increase iron levels is by taking an iron supplement. Look for a supplement that contains ferrous sulfate. Your provider may recommend a prescription iron supplement or an over-the counter one. Supplements come in a few forms, including:
If your anemia is severe, your provider may recommend iron infusions to build up iron stores.
Vitamin B12 supplements
If you have vitamin-deficiency anemia, your provider may recommend adding supplemental B12. These can take the form of pills or injections. “Supplements can help raise levels of B12 in your body, which can increase iron levels,” Dr. Policht says.
Depending on the type and severity of your anemia, your provider may order a blood transfusion. Transfusions can restore healthy red blood cell levels.
During a blood transfusion, you receive a blood donation through an IV. You may need a single transfusion. Or you may need more over time.
Bone marrow transplant
Certain types of anemia, especially aplastic anemia, respond best to bone marrow transplants. During this procedure, your old bone marrow is replaced with new donor marrow. “A bone marrow or stem call transplant is used for aplastic anemia that hasn’t responded to other treatments,” says Dr. Policht.
Getting you back to you
If you suspect you have anemia, start by making an appointment with your provider.
If you have anemia, they’ll work with you to find the right treatment. And finding the right treatment helps you feel more like yourself again.