Anaemia is a medical term for low red blood cell count or haemoglobin and it may result in a lack of oxygen to the cells. Anaemia can be caused by many medical conditions. Transfusion of red cells may be required if anaemia becomes severe.
Why are red blood cells important?
Red blood cells contain a protein called haemoglobin. Haemoglobin delivers oxygen from the lungs to all parts of the body. All tissues require oxygen to survive. Haemoglobin levels are different in adult females and males. For men the haemoglobin reference range is between 130 – 180 g/L and females 120 – 160 g/L.
Red blood cells are produced by the bone marrow and have a life span of 120 days. New red blood cells are constantly required to replace old red blood cells with millions of red blood cells being released into the blood stream each day in healthy people.To produce new red blood cells the body needs key ingredients such as iron.
What are the symptoms of anaemia?
Symptoms experienced with anaemia are a result of the reduced amount of oxygen in the body. Common symptoms include: tiredness, lethargy, feeling faint, and becoming easily breathless. Less common symptoms include: headaches, palpitations, altered taste, and ringing in the ears. Other symptoms may be experienced depending on the cause of the anaemia.
What causes anaemia?
There are many possible causes of anaemia; however it generally occurs by either:
- Increased loss of red cells – due to blood loss (bleeding) or destruction of red cells (haemolysis).
- Problems with production of red cells – low numbers of red cells or abnormal red cells.
In all cases the underlying problem needs to be established.
Some examples include:
Increased blood loss
- bleeding from the stomach or bowel
- heavy periods or childbirth
Destruction of red cells
- sickle cell anaemia
- artificial heart valves
Decreased numbers of red cells
- iron deficiency
- other vitamin deficiency such as B12 or folate
- bone marrow and stem cell problems including blood cancer
- medical conditions such as chronic kidney disease
Abnormal red cells
- hereditary spherocytosis
Finding the cause of anaemia and treating it
A blood test is performed to determine if you have anaemia. It measures both the number of red blood cells and the haemoglobin level. Often additional blood tests such as iron studies, vitamin B12 and folate levels; and kidney function are included.
You should always see your doctor if you have any symptoms of anaemia. Your doctor will assess your symptoms, investigate accordingly and determine if any treatment is required. Sometimes the cause may be easily recognised; in other cases more tests may be required.
The treatment of anaemia is determined by the identification of the cause. In many cases treatment prescribed by a doctor may be as simple as iron tablets.
Two examples of genetic causes of anaemia are sickle cell anaemia and thalassaemia:
Sickle cell anaemia
Sickle cell anaemia is a genetic blood disorder which causes the body to make abnormal haemoglobin. This affects the shape of the red blood cells causing them to be crescent or sickle shaped. The sickle shape of red blood cells makes them inflexible and sticky. They can get stuck in small blood vessels blocking the flow of blood, depriving the tissues of oxygen and causing pain and organ damage. The sickle cells also don’t last as long in the circulation as normal red blood cells leading to ‘sickle cell anaemia’. Red cell transfusions are used to increase the supply of oxygen carrying haemoglobin.
Thalassaemia is one of the most common genetic blood disorders in the world. Haemoglobin production is abnormal, resulting in anaemia. Red cell transfusions give a temporary supply of healthy red blood cells with normal haemoglobin levels. This allows improved oxygen delivery to the tissues in the body.
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