The Many Varieties of Anemia

“Anemic” is one of those words that has broken away from the strictly medical lexicon and into the mainstream vocabulary. In the Wall Street Journal or The New York Times it means “weak” or “faint,” but in The Merck Manual or The Physicians' Desk Reference, it refers to the world's most common blood disorder that affects about a quarter of the planet's population.

Anemia is a condition in which the body lacks enough healthy red blood cells to carry sufficient oxygen to the body's tissues. If you are afflicted by with anemia, you feel tired and weak – hence the PDR/NY Times crossover. There is a pretty wide spectrum of anemia, with symptoms and consequences ranging from the trivial to the dire. Often times anemia itself may be indicative of a more severe illness, and you should not hesitate to see your doctor if you experience any of the symptoms.

These include:

·         Fatigue

·         Pale or yellowish skin

·         Weakness

·         Dizziness or lightheadedness

·         Irregular heartbeats

·         Shortness of breath

·         Headache

·         Chest pain

·         Cold hands and feet

Note that symptoms often start out as very mild, to the point of being almost unnoticed, but get more severe as the anemia grows. Often the first time someone is made aware of their anemic condition is when their blood is checked prior to donating some.

There are several reasons why your body might not have a sufficient amount of red blood cells. Absent enough iron, your bone marrow simply won't produce enough red blood cells. This iron-deficiency form of anemia is the most common, and is a particular problem for many pregnant women.

Likewise, if your body does not get enough folate or vitamin B-12, it will not produce enough healthy red cells. This vitamin deficiency anemia is a particularly thorny issue for vegetarians. Pernicious anemia is the condition that describes the anemia borne of a body that cannot properly process the B-12 that it consumes.

Certain diseases — such as cancer, HIV/AIDS, rheumatoid arthritis, kidney disease, and Crohn's disease, leukemia, myelofibrosis, among others –- can interfere with the production of red blood cells.

When red blood cells are destroyed faster than bone marrow can replace them, a group of anemias known as “hemolytic” can occur. You can inherit a hemolytic anemia, or you can develop it later in life. The most famous among this group is sickle cell anemia, which is caused by a defective form of hemoglobin that forces red blood cells to assume an abnormal crescent (sickle) shape. These irregular blood cells die prematurely, resulting in a chronic shortage of red blood cells.

The treatments for anemia are as varied as the types of the disease. Iron and vitamin deficiency anemias can be countered through proper dietary supplements, which may have to be delivered intravenously.

Many types of anemias cannot be prevented, but iron and vitamin deficiency anemia surely can, through proper diet. Depending on the severity of the anemia, a blood transfusion or plasmapheresis may be necessary. Plasmapheresis is a type of blood-filtering procedure.