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What is anemia?

Anemia is a mild to severe condition in which the body has too few red blood cells or the red blood cells are immature and cannot carry adequate oxygen throughout the body.  The most common causes are iron or other nutrient deficiencies, certain medical conditions, excessive bleeding or the destruction of red blood cells.

What are common anemia symptoms?

There are many different types of anemia, which fall under 3 main categoriesAnemia related to blood loss. Anemia related to decreased or faulty red blood cell production. Anemia related to the destruction of red blood cells. Symptoms will depend on whether a deficiency, genetic condition, disease, or another issue is causing your anemia. The most well-known and common anemia symptoms include fatigue, weakness, irritability, and pale or yellowish skin. You may also experience more frequent headaches or chest pain, and find it difficult to warm up cold hands and feet.

If your anemia is left untreated, you may find that your heartbeat becomes irregular, or experience shortness of breath leading to dizziness and lightheadedness. These symptoms can potentially lead to serious consequences like heart failure.

How is anemia treated?

The treatment for anemia depends on your medical history and the root cause of the anemia in question. For most mild cases of anemia that are caused by iron deficiency, doctors will prescribe iron supplements, and may also advise altering your diet to ensure you’re getting enough of this critical mineral. A change in diet and lifestyle may also be the preferred choice of treatment if you’re anemic due to a vitamin deficiency.

If your anemia is a symptom of chronic illness, disease, or genetics, your doctor will start by treating the primary condition. They may also prescribe medications or offer blood transfusions to help you feel better in the interim.

Can you die from anemia?

Your body needs oxygen to survive, which it gets from red blood cells. Since anemia affects your red blood cells and consequently your body’s ability to receive oxygen, it needs to be taken seriously. 

If your anemia is left untreated, or if it’s a symptom of a larger chronic issue, you can die from it. There are some types of anemia, like sickle-cell anemia, that need to be managed carefully, or they can quickly put an individual at risk for life-threatening complications.

If you notice any of the symptoms listed above, it’s important to seek treatment immediately, to ensure that you aren’t putting your health in jeopardy.

Is anemia genetic?

Certain types of anemia are genetic. One of the most well-known types of inherited anemia is sickle cell anemia, which is common among individuals of African, Hispanic, and Mediterranean descent.

Another common form of inherited anemia is thalassemia, a condition that causes anemia due to the individual’s inability to produce hemoglobin, which helps carry oxygen throughout the body.

Some other common forms of genetic anemia include:

  •   Congenital pernicious anemia
  •   Fanconi anemia
  •   Hereditary spherocytosis
  •   Thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura (TTP)

What should I eat if I have anemia?

If you have anemia due to a vitamin or mineral deficiency, your doctor will likely recommend that you change your eating habits to ensure you’re getting enough of these critical nutrients. 

If you have iron-deficiency anemia, which is the most common form of anemia, your doctor will likely recommend that you eat lots of leafy greens (like kale, spinach, and Swiss chard), red meat, seafood, and packaged foods that are fortified with iron like cereals, orange juice, pasta, or rice.

Even if you have a healthy diet, make sure you’re not eating iron-rich items with foods or drinks that inhibit iron absorption, like coffee and tea, eggs, and calcium-rich dairy.

Learn more about Anemia:

Photo of Kristin Ricklefs-Johnson

Medically reviewed by:

Kristin Ricklefs-Johnson, Ph.D., RD

Kristin is an RDN who also earned her Ph.D. in Nutrition from Arizona State University with an emphasis on insulin resistance, lipid metabolism disorders, and obesity. She completed her post-doctoral fellowship at Mayo Clinic where she focused on nutrition-related proteomic and metabolic research. Her interests include understanding the exact mechanism of action of various genetic variations underlying individual predispositions to nutrition-related health outcomes. Her goal is to help all individuals prevent chronic diseases and achieve long, healthy lives through eating well.

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