Anemia is a blood disorder that occurs when the body does not have enough red blood cells, or when red blood cells don’t function properly.
The main function of red blood cells is to carry oxygen to many parts of the body, via their bond with a protein called hemoglobin. When people are anemic, their body is typically not getting enough oxygen, which can lead to a variety of symptoms. A common blood test can determine whether someone has anemia.
A number of factors can cause anemia. In many instances, it's simply due to not getting enough iron, folate or other types of vitamins and minerals in your regular diet. Blood loss from a disease, an injury or menstruation can also lead to anemia, and some medications and diseases -- kidney disease and cancer treatments, for example -- can cause it as well. Certain types of anemia, such as sickle cell anemia, aplastic anemia and thalassemia, are genetic disorders.
Symptoms of Anemia
Because anemia typically leads to lower oxygen levels throughout the body, common symptoms include dizziness, shortness of breath, weakness, headache, cold hands or feet, yellow or pale skin and heart issues like rapid heartbeat and chest pain. These symptoms can worsen if the anemia is not treated, leading to organ damage and even life-threatening symptoms.
In many instances, changes in diet can help with nutrition-related anemia. Consuming iron-rich foods like lean red meat, beans and iron-fortified breads and cereals can help, as can eating foods rich in vitamin C, which enhance the absorption of iron. Folic acid and vitamin B12 are two other nutrients that also sometimes help prevent anemia. In certain situations, doctors recommend vitamin supplements to help prevent or treat the condition.
If anemia is caused by factors aside from diet, an adjustment to medications or the treatment of an underlying disease may be the key to controlling it. Women of childbearing age should also be tested for anemia every 5 to 10 years, beginning in adolescence.
SOURCES: Office on Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; American Society of Hematology
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