Anemia is a condition in which the blood running through your veins contains significantly fewer red blood cells than it should. Red blood cells, also called erythrocytes, are the most plentiful blood cell type in your body and the principal mechanism through which the various organs and tissues receive the necessary hemoglobin for normal function.
Hemoglobin is a type of protein which fulfils the crucial role of transporting oxygen throughout the body, thus ensuring that it has enough energy to power the multitude of metabolic processes necessary for life.
Therefore, when insufficient red blood cells populate the blood supply, hemoglobin becomes scarce and, subsequently, metabolic function breaks down on a multitude of levels. As a result, Anemia manifests with an extensive set of symptoms which carry with them varying degrees of severity.
Anemia may be classified into three categories depending on the mechanisms behind the decreased supply of red blood cells. These are:
- Blood Loss
- Impaired production of red blood cells
- Increased destruction of red blood cells
Acute Posthemorrhagic Anemia
Or Anemia caused by sudden blood loss
Under conditions of significant blood loss, the human body begins to rapidly absorb water from various tissues into the bloodstream to ensure that blood vessels retain sufficient pressure. Consequently, blood is diluted, and the percentage of red blood cells in the bloodstream decreases dramatically.
Two things occur when this happens. First, blood pressure drops dramatically, and the body’s oxygen supply is severely compromised. As a result, the following symptoms begin to quickly manifest.
Can be described as a sensation of insufficient energy, exhaustion, or fatigue. Weakness due to sudden blood loss can dramatically impact cognitive functions and cause loss of memory, difficulty paying attention, difficulty concentrating, and staying vigilant. If blood loss is truly abrupt, loss of consciousness likely.
When the body’s total volume of circulating blood drops dramatically due to hemorrhage, the heart muscle is affected, and the heart’s capacity to pump blood consistently is diminished. As a consequence, the patient’s heartbeat becomes irregular and may beat either too fast, known as tachycardia, or too slow, known as bradycardia.
Patients experiencing from post-hemorrhage Anemia often present with pale skin that is cold or clammy to the touch. This phenomenon is due to the fact that when the body’s total blood volume decreases, circulating blood is diverted from the surface of the skin towards the most essential internal organs.
Shortness of Breath
As a direct consequence of blood volume dropping, the oxygen levels in the body plummet. The more rapid drop in blood, the more starved for oxygen the body becomes. In an attempt to compensate for the lack of oxygen, the respiratory system goes into overdrive, and the lungs begin to inhale and exhale much more rapidly. This is experienced by the patient as shortness of breath, or fast and shallow breathing.
Nausea and Vomiting
Nausea and vomiting are common signs of posthemorrhagic Anemia, likely due to emerging electrolyte imbalances.
Posthemorrhagic Anemia is characterized by a significant decrease to the oxygen levels in the brain. As a consequence, patients often experience feeling confused or “woozy” and have difficulty concentrating.
Internal bleeding that leads to posthemorrhagic Anemia can often cause severe headaches in some patients.
In case the hemorrhaging is of a chronic nature such as that caused by bladder tumors, intestinal polyps or stomach ulcers, posthemorrhagic Anemia will still manifest, but the signs and symptoms will be slightly different.
Iron Deficiency Anemia
Or Anemia caused by Impaired Production of Red Blood Cells
Iron Deficiency Anemia is by far the most common type of Anemia in the world, especially among populations of newborns, teenagers, and pregnant women. Iron Deficiency Anemia, as the name succinctly indicates, is caused by insufficient serum iron levels.
Iron plays a crucial role in the lives of all human beings and is required to ensure all tissues are properly oxygenated as well as to ensure the efficient metabolic function of most cells. Therefore, an iron deficiency can cause significant alterations to virtually all systems of the body.
Some causes of Iron Deficiency Anemia are inadequate dietary intake, excessive loss of iron due to alterations in the menstrual cycle or intestinal microhemorrhages, and chronic intestinal inflammation, which negatively affects intestinal absorption.
The clinical manifestations of Iron Deficiency Anemia are broad and include immunological alterations, impairment of cognitive function, and behavioral alterations. Taking into account the potential implications of this condition, it is vital that we learn as much as possible about the most common symptoms associated with it.
Some of the most characteristic symptoms of iron deficiency are fatigue, headache, and irritability, although they are not the only ones. In addition to fatigue, patients with Iron Deficiency Anemia may also experience the following symptoms:
Hemoglobin, that ever-important oxygen-laden protein, is what gives blood its characteristic red color. Patients suffering from Iron Deficiency Anemia have significantly lower levels of hemoglobin in their blood supply and as a consequence have blood that is lighter in color; as such, their skin acquires a characteristic pallor or pale appearance.
Difficulty Breathing and Increased Heart Rate
Experiencing an increased heart rate and rapid respiration is a universal consequence of performing strenuous physical activity. This phenomenon occurs because, during bouts of intense physical demand, the body’s oxygen requirement increases, and the heart and lungs go into overdrive in order to compensate. However, people suffering from Iron Deficiency Anemia are always in short supply of oxygenated blood and thus experience shortness of breath and heart palpitations even when at rest.
Iron deficiency causes atrophy of the epithelial tissues that line the tongue and inside of the oral cavity. A common consequence of this fact is the appearance of ulcers and other lesions on the inside of the mouth. The sides of the mouth also tend to crack and cause painful sores.
Aversion to Cold Temperatures
Anemic patients often feel cold, especially in their hands and feet, even when the environmental temperature does not justify it. This is due to poor circulation and lack of oxygenated blood in the extremities.
Pica is a psychological disorder which may be characterized by the appearance of an appetite for non-nutritive substances. Weirdly enough, patients suffering from Iron Deficiency Anemia frequently report having cravings to eat unusual and even inedible materials such as ash or dirt. Another common sign of Pica is the constant urge to eat ice.
More commonly known as Restless Leg Syndrome, this condition is characterized by experiencing unpleasant sensations in the legs and having an uncontrollable urge to move them. Not all sufferers of Willis-Ekbom disease present an iron deficiency, but it has been observed that having a mineral deficiency increases the likelihood of developing restless leg syndrome by a factor of ten.
Humans lose hundreds of hairs every day as a consequence of the normal follicular cycle. However, losing hair at an abnormal rate may be a warning sign that an iron deficiency is present. Patients suffering from Iron Deficiency Anemia often report experiencing unexpected hair loss.
Is a disorder of the nails, generally of the hand. Patients with koilonychia have nails which are abnormally thin and have a flat or even concave surface. Koilonychia can be a sign of various forms of Anemia, and especially so of Iron-deficiency anemia.
Cephaleas, more commonly known as headaches, can be a symptom of a multitude of ailments such as colds, dehydration, poor vision, etc. However, a constant headache can be caused by a severe iron deficiency.
Lowered Immune Function
Patients with Iron Deficiency Anemia grow significantly more prone to infection with time. The mineral iron is essential for the proper proliferation and maturation of immune cells. As such, the efficacy of a patient’s immune function depends in no small degree on their serum iron levels.
Or Anemia caused by Increased Destruction of Red Blood Cells
Sickle Cell Disease, also known as SCD, the most common type of which is Sickle Cell Anemia, is a group of conditions in which the red blood cells of the body become disfigured and develop a distinct “sickle” shape, hence the name.
In a healthy individual, red blood cells are round and flexible, which facilitates their circulation throughout the body’s veins and arteries. However, patients suffering from an SCD such as Sickle Cell Anemia suffers from insufficient circulation due to the rigidity and deformity of their red blood cells. The deformed red blood cells tend to clump together and create sticky blockages which severely limit the circulatory system’s ability to diffuse blood.
As a result, patients experience pain, increased risk of infection, potential damage to organs, and even strokes. The most common symptoms of Sickle Cell Anemia are:
Vision disorders, including blindness, can occur when sickle cells clump and block the flow of blood in and out of the eye. Reduced blood flow to the area can cause severe damage to the optical nerve and retina.
Patients with Sickle Cell Anemia frequently experience episodes of moderate to severe pain along joints, extremities, and organs of the body. These crises are caused by clogged blood vessels and poor circulation.
This condition is characterized by significant swelling of the hands and feet. Hand-Foot Syndrome, which is very painful, is typically accompanied by a fever and is caused by sickle cells clumping up and causing blockages in the blood vessels of the hands and feet which prevent blood flow from exiting the extremities.
Acute Thoracic Syndrome
Acute Thoracic Syndrome, or Acute Chest Syndrome, is a very serious and painful condition. It may be caused by an infection and reduced blood flow in the lungs. Typical signs and symptoms of Acute Thoracic Syndrome include fever, difficulty breathing, and what most patients describe as excruciating chest pain.
Pediatric patients with Sickle Cell Anemia can experience what is known as a Splenic Sequestration Crisis. This complication, which is life-threatening, occurs when the spleen becomes engorged with trapped blood. Splenic Sequestration is characterized by pain along the left side of the abdomen, weakness, and a rapid heartbeat. Over time, the patient’s spleen suffers from fibrosis and scarring. Splenic Sequestration is seldom seen in adults.
When clumps of sickle cells create a blockage that prevents blood flow from reaching the brain in sufficient quantities, the risk for a cerebrovascular accident increases dramatically. Strokes are characterized by a severe headache, weakness along one side of the body, and significant changes in alertness, speech, sight, and hearing.
Around the world, millions of people are currently suffering from Anemia.
Unfortunately, Anemia is a complicated condition to diagnose and treat since its roots and clinical manifestations are highly varied. In fact, Anemia often goes completely unnoticed in its earliest stages, and many patients are only diagnosed through chance when having unrelated blood work. Additionally, the specific signs and symptoms depend primarily on the speed with which the anemic state sets in.
Thankfully, the most prevalent form of Anemia, Iron Deficiency Anemia, can be easily corrected or even outright prevented through proper dietary planning and supplementation.
The importance of ensuring the body has an ample supply of dietary iron, especially during periods of high-risk such as pregnancy, childhood, and adolescence, cannot be overstated enough.
Dark leafy greens such as spinach and swiss chard, legumes such as lentils and chickpeas, beef, liver, and nuts like pistachios and almonds are fantastic sources of dietary iron.
To accurately diagnose Anemia, your doctor will consider your family history and run some very specific blood tests in order to ascertain any potential alterations to your serum levels of red blood cells and hemoglobin. The results are highly subjective and may vary from one individual to the next, depending on age, gender, physical fitness, etc.
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