Our blood has three main components: red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. Red blood cells deliver oxygen to our body’s tissues. White blood cells help our immune system by fighting off bacteria and preventing infections and disease. And platelets are essential to help blood clot. Our blood is also made up of plasma, the liquid portion of our blood, in which red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets are suspended.
Red Blood Cells, White Blood Cells
All of these components - red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets, and plasma – can be affected by blood disorders. Blood disorders can affect one or more components of the blood, and prevent it from functioning properly. Given the vital responsibilities these components have in our bodies, blood disorders can be detrimental to our health.
Many blood disorders can be inherited. However, they can also be caused by various diseases, side effects of certain medications, or a lack of some important nutrients that you may not be getting in your diet.
Types of Blood Disorders
Let’s take a look at what types of blood disorders can affect us:
Blood disorders that affect red blood cells:
- Anemia: Low red blood cell count. With a mild case of anemia, people do not usually experience any symptoms. However, when anemia becomes severe, it often causes symptoms such as shortness of breath, fatigue, and pale skin.
- Sickle cell anemia: An inherited condition in which there are not enough healthy red blood cells to carry oxygen throughout the body. The healthy red blood cells become stiff, sticky, and sickle-shaped, causing the blockage of blood flow in the body. This can lead to severe pain and organ damage. It most commonly affects people from Africa, India, South or Central America, Italy, Greece, Turkey, the Caribbean islands, and Saudi Arabia.
- Pernicious anemia (B12 deficiency): Body is unable to absorb enough B12 within your diet. This may be caused by an autoimmune disorder or a weak stomach lining. In the long run, this can eventually cause nerve damage. On the other hand, too much B12 can also cause health problems.
- Autoimmune hemolytic anemia: Immune system becomes overactive and destroys the body's own red blood cells. Treatment includes medication, such as prednisone, which works by suppressing the immune system so that it is no longer overactive.
- Iron-deficiency anemia: Anemia due to lack of iron. Our bodies need iron in order to produce red blood cells. The most common reasons people have this type of blood disorder is they are not getting enough iron in their diet or in women, they experience significant blood loss with menstruation. It can also be caused by cancer or ulcers which cause blood loss within the gastrointestinal tract. This can be treated with iron pills, or in some cases, a blood transfusion if necessary.
- Anemia of chronic disease: People often develop anemia when they have certain chronic diseases such as chronic kidney disease. The good news: this type of disorder does not usually need treatment. All that’s required is a synthetic hormone injection, such as Epogen or Procrit, which will produce more blood cells. In some cases, a blood transfusion may be needed.
- Thalassemia: A genetic type of anemia. Mainly affects people with a Mediterranean background. There are usually no symptoms with this type of blood disorder and therefore, people do not need treatment. If you are experiencing symptoms, you may need to have a blood transfusion.
- Malaria: A disease carried and transmitted by mosquitos. After being bitten by a mosquito carrying the disease, malaria enters a person’s blood and infects the red blood cells. Mosquitos carrying malaria are most often found in Africa, but have also been found in many other tropical locations. Malaria causes the blood cells to break down which leads to chills, fever, and organ damage.
- Aplastic anemia: The bone marrow does not produce enough blood cells. This may be caused by an autoimmune disorder, a viral infection, or even a side effect of a certain drug. It can be treated with medication, a blood transfusion, and in some cases, a bone marrow transplant.
- Polycythemia vera: The body produces an excess amount of blood cells. Unfortunately, the cause of this is unknown. The good news: this condition usually does not create any symptoms or serious problems for anyone. But in some cases, it may cause blood clots.
Blood disorders that affect white blood cells:
- Multiple myeloma: A type of blood cancer that occurs when white blood cells called plasma cells becomes cancerous. Unfortunately, there is no cure for multiple myeloma. However, chemotherapy and stem cell transplantation can increase a person’s survival rate, allowing them to live for many years with it.
- Lymphoma: A type of blood cancer that affects the lymph system, as a result of cancerous white blood cells growing and spreading. There are two types of lymphoma: Hodgkin's lymphoma and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Treatment includes chemotherapy and radiation, which can often increase a person’s survival rate, and sometimes even cure it.
- Myelodysplastic syndrome: A group of blood cancers that affect the bone marrow. It usually develops and grows slowly. However, it has the potential to suddenly develop into a severe leukemia. Treatment includes chemotherapy, blood transfusions, and stem cell transplantation.
- Leukemia: A type of blood cancer that occurs when cancerous white blood cells develop in the bone marrow. Leukemia may develop very quickly and aggressively, or develop gradually over time. Treatment includes chemotherapy and stem cell transplantation (aka bone marrow transplant), which may be able to cure it.
Blood disorders that affect platelets:
- Heparin-induced thrombocytopenia: Low platelet count caused by negative reaction to heparin.
- Thrombocytopenia: A low platelet count in the blood. May be caused by a number of different conditions such as leukemia or an immune disorder.
- Essential thrombocytosis: Body produces an excess amount of platelets, which causes them to not function properly. This causes bleeding, excessive clotting, or both. The cause of this disorder is unknown.
- Thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura: Rare blood disorder that causes small blood clots to develop in the blood vessels, which in turn uses up the platelets and creates a low platelet count.
- Idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura: Chronic low platelet count in the blood. The cause is unknown and there are usually no symptoms. Sometimes, may cause abnormal bruising or bleeding, and small red spots on the skin.
Blood disorders that affect blood plasma:
- Hypercoaguable state: When the blood clots too easily. If this becomes chronic, you may need to take blood thinners daily to control it.
- Sepsis: A blood infection that spreads throughout the body. Symptoms include low blood pressure, fever, rapid breathing, and respiratory failure. Without immediate treatment, this can be life-threatening.
- Disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC): Tiny blood clots and bleeding occur together throughout the body. This may be caused by surgical complication, severe infections, or a complication during pregnancy.
- Hemophilia: A genetic deficiency of certain proteins that help blood to clot.
- ·Deep venous thrombosis: Occurs when blood clots in a deep vein. This usually occurs within a deep vein in the leg. This can be life-threatening because it can reroute and make its way to the heart and lungs, causing a pulmonary embolism.
- von Willebrand disease: An inherited condition that causes the body to either produce too little of a protein (von Willebrand factor, which helps blood clot), or produce a protein that does not function properly. Most people with this disease experience no symptoms and are completely unaware they even have it. The only signs or symptoms may be significant bleeding as a result of injury or with surgery.