Student Health Services
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What is Anemia?
Anemia is a group of conditions where either there are not enough red blood cells in your blood, or the blood cells do not contain enough of the proper materials to perform their job well. Because the job of the red blood cells is to carry oxygen to the tissues, fatigue and shortness of breath are common symptoms when the blood is low. Diminished exercise tolerance, mild weakness, tiredness, or no symptoms at all may be present with anemia.
Where Does Anemia Come From?
Bleeding from wounds, ulcers, surgery or menstrual periods may cause anemia associated with blood loss.
A deficiency anemia is a condition where the number of red blood cells is too low due to a lack of an essential nutrient such as a vitamin or mineral. The most common deficiency is that of iron, which usually occurs when some source of bleeding causes an exhaustion of the body's iron supply. This is very common with heavy menstrual bleeding and after surgery. Essential vitamins, such as folic acid and vitamin B12 may also cause inadequate production of red cells, resulting in an anemia. Vitamin B-12 and folic acid deficiency may be associated with pregnancy or with a heavy alcohol use. Some medications may also cause anemia, as may hemophilia, sickle cell disease, kidney failure, infections, pernicious anemia, and a number of more rare diseases. On occasion, extensive testing may be required to find the cause.
Treatment of Anemia
Once the cause of the anemia is found, removal or avoidance of the cause may bring a cure. Treatment of the underlying disease, like ulcers or abnormal periods may also allow the body to rebuild its blood. Treatment of most deficiency anemia consists of controlling or preventing any ongoing bleeding, rest, a good diet, and supplemental iron or other lacking nutrient.
Iron supplements may be in the form of vitamins plus iron for very mild cases, or prescription iron pills for more significant anemia. Iron may be given with Vitamin C increase absorption. Iron is usually given by mouth 1-3 times a day, and should be taken with the meals. Iron will cause dark stools, which are not "tarry", as blood in the intestine is. Iron is VERY toxic in overdose, and should never be left where children may get to it. Other vitamins may also be prescribed to correct certain anemia, and should be taken only as directed. Vitamin B12, for example, is given only by injection.
Will I Need to get a Blood Transfusion?
Severe reductions in the blood count or blood volume may necessitate a transfusion to restore red blood cells. Giving supplemental iron and letting the body rebuild its blood supply may manage mild to moderate loss. Patients with heart disease, lung disease, old age, and other conditions may not tolerate a moderate anemia very well.
Several blood tests are available to monitor the progress of resolving this type of anemia. Be sure to follow-up as your doctor has instructed, or before if any problems arise. Follow-up exam and testing is also very important to make sure the cause is under control and the anemia has been corrected.