Anemia: what causes it and how to treat it

Anemia is the most common blood condition. It occurs when the number of red blood cells is low, which results in a decrease in hemoglobin, the protein they generate and which is responsible for transporting oxygen to organs and tissues throughout the body.

The main cause of anemia is iron deficiency, the mineral that participates in the production of hemoglobin. Although many conditions can cause anemia, malnutrition is one of the central ones. This makes anemia a global public health problem that highlights social inequity and the crisis of access to adequate food, and that particularly affects young children and pregnant women. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), worldwide, 42% of children under 5 years old, and 40% of pregnant women suffer from anemia.

In the United States, about 3 million people have anemia.


This lack of hemoglobin, and therefore, oxygen, generates the following symptoms:

  • Extreme weakness
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Fast or irregular heartbeat
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Headache
  • Cold hands or feet
  • Chest pain
  • Pallor


There are many health problems that can cause anemia. Among them, the most frequent are:

  • Very heavy menstrual periods
  • Pregnancy
  • Ulcers
  • Polyps in the colon or colon cancer
  • Inherited disorders
  • A diet that does not contain enough iron, folic acid, or vitamin B 12
  • Some disorders, such as sickle cell anemia, thalassemia, or cancer
  • Aplastic anemia, a condition that can be inherited or acquired
  • Glucose -6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency
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Anemia can also be a symptom of a more serious condition. It can result from chronic bleeding in the stomach. Chronic inflammation from infection, kidney disease, cancer, or autoimmune diseases can also cause the body to make fewer red blood cells.

Certain diseases affect the ability of the small intestine to absorb nutrients. For example Crohn’s disease or celiac disease can cause low levels of iron in the body.

It is an extremely debilitating condition. If left untreated, the affected person may not even be able to walk from the fragility they feel. In minors, it can drastically affect physical and mental development.

Types of anemia

The most common form of anemia is iron deficiency, but there are other types of anemia, and they are as follows:

Aplastic anemia. This occurs when the bone marrow has damaged stem cells. In that case, the body is not able to make enough new blood cells. The condition affects red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. In medical jargon it is also known as bone marrow failure.

Hemolytic anemia. This occurs when the body destroys red blood cells before they should. The normal lifespan of red blood cells is 120 days.

Normocytic anemia. This type of anemia develops when the red blood cells are normal in size, but the count is low.

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Pernicious anemia. It occurs when the body lacks vitamin B12. It causes a shortage of healthy red blood cells.

Sickle cell anemia It is a genetic disease that affects red blood cells. It occurs when a person is born with 2 abnormal hemoglobin genes.


In addition to the regular questionnaire that the healthcare provider will conduct, a complete blood count, a blood test, should be performed.

Depending on the results, the doctor may order other tests, such as an in-depth analysis of the function of the bone marrow.

The doctor should also inquire into the environment of the patient, his family history, if his nutrition is adequate for his age, among other health determinants.

Prevention and Treatment

If the cause of anemia is genetic or caused by loss of blood from an injury or accident, or a clot that occurs during childbirth, it cannot be prevented.

However, a balanced diet that contains foods rich in iron can ensure that the body generates a good amount of hemoglobin, to keep it well oxygenated.

Among them are:

  • Red meat
  • Fish and shellfish
  • Organ meats (such as liver)
  • Whole grains
  • Dried fruits like walnuts
  • Beans
  • Dark green leafy vegetables (such as spinach, kale, or broccoli)
  • Iron-fortified foods, such as breads and cereals
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The central goal of treatment for anemia is to strengthen the red blood cells, so that a well and consistently oxygenated body is guaranteed.

Treatments depend on the underlying condition causing the anemia and can range from specific injections to treat normocytic anemia, to hormones to control heavy periods, to blood transfusions.

The patient, together with their physician, must identify the appropriate treatment for the specific type of anemia.

The WHO indicates that in the case of nations with a high incidence of anemia due to malnutrition, food programs and the free delivery of iron-fortified foods can reverse the percentage of cases of anemia in the most vulnerable populations.

Sources: National Heart, Blood, and Lung Institute, MedlinePlus, Mayo Clinic, American Society of Family Physicians, World Health Organization, American Society of Hematology.

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