Anemia is a condition in which you don't have enough healthy red blood cells to carry adequate oxygen to the body's tissues. Having anemia may make you feel tired and weak.
There are many forms of anemia, each with its own cause. Anemia can be temporary or long term, and it can range from mild to severe. See your doctor if you suspect you have anemia because it can be a warning sign of serious illness.
Treatments for anemia range from taking supplements to undergoing medical procedures. You may be able to prevent some types of anemia by eating a healthy, varied diet.
Anemia care at Mayo Clinic
Anemia signs and symptoms vary depending on the cause of your anemia. They may include:
At first anemia can be so mild that it goes unnoticed. But symptoms worsen as anemia worsens.
Make an appointment with your doctor if you're feeling fatigued for unexplained reasons. Some anemias, such as iron deficiency anemia or vitamin B-12 deficiency, are common.
Fatigue has many causes besides anemia, so don't assume that if you're tired you must be anemic. Some people learn that their hemoglobin is low, which indicates anemia, when they go to donate blood. If you're told that you can't donate blood because of low hemoglobin, make an appointment with your doctor.
Anemia occurs when your blood doesn't have enough red blood cells. This can happen if:
Your body makes three types of blood cells â white blood cells to fight infection, platelets to help your blood clot and red blood cells to carry oxygen throughout your body.
Red blood cells contain hemoglobin â an iron-rich protein that gives blood its red color. Hemoglobin enables red blood cells to carry oxygen from your lungs to all parts of your body and to carry carbon dioxide from other parts of the body to your lungs so that it can be exhaled.
Most blood cells, including red blood cells, are produced regularly in your bone marrow â a spongy material found within the cavities of many of your large bones. To produce hemoglobin and red blood cells, your body needs iron, vitamin B-12, folate and other nutrients from the foods you eat.
Different types of anemia and their causes include:
Iron deficiency anemia. This is the most common type of anemia worldwide. Iron deficiency anemia is caused by a shortage of iron in your body. Your bone marrow needs iron to make hemoglobin. Without adequate iron, your body can't produce enough hemoglobin for red blood cells.
Without iron supplementation, this type of anemia occurs in many pregnant women. It is also caused by blood loss, such as from heavy menstrual bleeding, an ulcer, cancer and regular use of some over-the-counter pain relievers, especially aspirin.
Vitamin deficiency anemia. In addition to iron, your body needs folate and vitamin B-12 to produce enough healthy red blood cells. A diet lacking in these and other key nutrients can cause decreased red blood cell production.
Additionally, some people may consume enough B-12, but their bodies aren't able to process the vitamin. This can lead to vitamin deficiency anemia, also known as pernicious anemia.
To diagnose anemia, your doctor may ask you about your medical and family history, perform a physical exam, and run the following tests:
Complete blood count (CBC). A CBC is used to count the number of blood cells in a sample of your blood. For anemia your doctor will be interested in the levels of the red blood cells contained in the blood (hematocrit) and the hemoglobin in your blood.
Normal adult hematocrit values vary from one medical practice to another but are generally between 40 and 52 percent for men and 35 and 47 percent for women. Normal adult hemoglobin values are generally 14 to 18 grams per deciliter for men and 12 to 16 grams per deciliter for women.
If you receive a diagnosis of anemia, your doctor may order additional tests to determine the underlying cause. For example, iron deficiency anemia can result from chronic bleeding of ulcers, benign polyps in the colon, colon cancer, tumors or kidney problems.
Occasionally, it may be necessary to study a sample of your bone marrow to diagnose anemia.
Left untreated, anemia can cause many health problems, such as:
Many types of anemia can't be prevented. But iron deficiency anemia and vitamin deficiency anemias can be avoided by having a diet that includes a variety of vitamins and nutrients, including:
If you're concerned about getting enough vitamins from the food you eat, ask your doctor whether a multivitamin may be right for you.
If you have a family history of an inherited anemia, such as sickle cell anemia or thalassemia, talk to your doctor and possibly a genetic counselor about your risk and what risks you may pass on to your children.
Anemia can be a complication of malaria. If you plan on traveling to a place where malaria is common, talk with your doctor beforehand about taking preventive drugs. In areas where malaria is common, prevention involves reducing exposure to mosquitoes, for example, by using bed nets treated with insecticide.
These factors place you at increased risk of anemia:
Chronic conditions. If you have cancer, kidney failure or another chronic condition, you may be at risk of anemia of chronic disease. These conditions can lead to a shortage of red blood cells.
Slow, chronic blood loss from an ulcer or other source within your body can deplete your body's store of iron, leading to iron deficiency anemia.