Anemia – derived from the Greek – literally means ‘lack of blood’. It is a decrease in the normal number of red blood cells, or less than the normal quantity of hemoglobin in the blood.
A person who suffers from anemia will feel tired and weak because his or her body’s tissues are being starved of oxygen. But because the body has a remarkable ability to compensate for the symptoms of mild anemia, the person may not experience any symptoms at all. They can only be detected during a medical examination that includes a blood test.
General symptoms of anemia include fatigue, weakness, fainting, breathlessness, heart palpitations (rapid or irregular beating), dizziness, headaches, ringing in the ears, difficulty in sleeping or concentrating. These may go together with a pale complexion, the fading in color of the normally red lining of the mouth and abnormal menstruation (absence of periods or increased bleeding).
However, there are various types of anemia. Symptoms can be different, and only a blood test can tell you which type of anemia you have.
There is a type of mild anemia often found in people from Mediterranean descent. Their genes are defective in producing hemoglobin. Treatment is often unnecessary. The doctor who first described the condition was Dr. Cooley, and hence this type is often called after him.
When your anemia is caused by iron deficiency, you will experience hunger for strange substances (this condition is called pica). Your nails will curve upward and you’ll feel a soreness in the mouth. Treatment comes with iron supplements, taken three times a day.
Another type of anemia is the one caused by vitamin B-12 deficiency. Here the patient will suffer a tingling in hands or feet, will lose the sense of touch, and will have difficulty in walking. Eventually, this can lead to dementia or other psychological disorders. The treatment involves a lifelong course of intramuscular injections of B-12
Hemolytic anemia is caused by the premature destruction of red blood cells. Antibodies produced by the immune system will damage the red blood cells. Symptoms of this may be: jaundice (yellow skin and eyes), brown or red urine, leg ulcers, gallstones. The red blood cells can equally be destroyed by toxic materials (lead, copper, benzene). Blood transfusions may be necessary here, and can be accompanied by medication to suppress the body’s immune system.
And then there’s sickle cell anemia (also called Hemoglobin S disease). This is a very serious, life-threatening form. People suffering from it have sickle-shaped red blood cells that are stiff and unable to squeeze through blood vessels. This can cause fatigue, a susceptibility to infection, a delayed growth and development in children and episodes with severe pain (especially in the joints, abdomen and limbs). Patients will be given oxygen, oral and intravenous fluids and pain-killing drugs to reduce the pain and prevent complications. In some cases, the only cure is a bone marrow transplant.
Remember, it is always best to call your doctor if you are not certain. You are no doctor and don’t know if any of the symptoms you experience is related to anemia. Better go through a medical examination than suffer lifelong.