Anemia is characterised by a deficiency in red blood cells, which are the cells responsible for bringing oxygen to the tissues and organs. According to the World Health Organisation, 25% of the global population suffer from anemia. The main reason is iron deficiency. So what are the symptoms of this disease and what are its various forms?
The symptoms of anemia
Mild anemia is difficult to spot. The intensity of the symptoms varies depending on the seriousness of the illness, the type of anemia and the rate at which it appears. Here are the main symptoms:
- pale colour
- increased heart rate
- cold hands and feet
- vulnerability to infections (in the case of aplastic anemia, sickle cell anemia or haemolytic anemia)
- pain in the limbs, the abdomen, the back or the chest (in the cases of serious anemia)
- sight problems
- jaundice and swollen limbs (in the cases of serious anemia)
- fatigue and breathlessness
What are the risk factors?
Several risk factors can contribute to anemia:
- iron deficiency
- vitamin deficiency
- a chronic illness or bone marrow disease
- a genetic illness affecting the red blood cells
- a haemorrhage
What are the main types of anemia?
In order to know which type of anemia a person is suffering from, they need to go for blood tests. A blood count is generally prescribed by a doctor.
Iron deficiency anemia
This is the most widespread form of anemia, and is characterised by heavy periods in women. Generally, it is due to a diet that is lacking in iron. It is also called microcytic anemia because it modifies the size of the red blood cells, which become smaller.
This type of anemia is caused by a deficiency in vitamin B12 or in vitamin B9 (folic acid) or by its poor absorption by the intestines. The red blood cells are larger than normal.
This type of anemia is caused by a chronic illness, some of which (or their treatments) can decrease the production of red blood cells. For example, cancer, Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, renal insufficiency or their treatments can cause anemia. The red blood cells however retain their normal size and appearance.
This form or anemia is due to a haemorrhage, or a significant blood loss following an accident, a surgical procedure or childbirth. But certain gastro-intestinal problems such as ulcers, polyps or bowel cancer can also cause it, following mild blood loss in the stools (which often goes unnoticed) over a long period.
This type of anemia is quite serious because it is characterised by rapid destruction of the red blood cells, often caused by an immune system reaction (auto-immune or allergic) to the presence of toxins in the blood or caused by infections (such as malaria). However, haemolytic anemia can also be congenital (sickle cell anemia, thalassaemia, etc.) with certain forms affecting mainly individuals of African origin.
Sideroblastic anemia is a very rare type of anemia. The red blood cells cannot incorporate the iron in the body into the haemoglobin. This problem can be either hereditary or acquired.
This rare form of anemia occurs when the bone marrow no longer produces enough new blood cells, leading to a deficiency in red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets. In half of all cases, aplastic anemia is due to having ingested toxins from certain medications or due to radiation. But it can also be caused by certain serious illnesses, such as bone marrow cancer or leukemia.