Anemia is so pervasive that the word anemic has become synonymous with a lack of vitality, substance, or flavor. But anemia symptoms go beyond the common signs of pallor and fatigue. The disorder is characterized by a lack of red blood cells or hemoglobin in the body that arises from a variety of underlying conditions—some that are serious and others that are barely noticeable. Anemia causes can even include pregnancy, poor diet, and cancer in rare cases. Here are some more facts worth knowing about anemia symptoms and treatments.
1. The most common type is iron deficiency anemia.
The body needs iron to produce hemoglobin—the protein that allows red blood cells to transport oxygen throughout the body—and when it doesn’t get enough of it, iron deficiency anemia can develop. Vitamin deficiency anemia works in a similar way. The vitamins B12 and folate are also essential to producing healthy red blood cells, and deficiencies in either vitamin can contribute to anemia. Patients may be lacking iron, B12, or folate because they’re not getting enough of the vitamins or mineral from their diet, or because their body has trouble absorbing them, either due to gastrointestinal surgery, a genetic disorder, or some other issue. In contrast, sickle cell anemia is an inherited condition in which malformed hemoglobin can't carry enough oxygen, causing blood cells to take on a crescent shape and impede blood flow.
2. Even mild anemia symptoms should be taken seriously.
There are roughly 400 different anemia causes. Some are relatively benign, like not including enough leafy greens in your diet, while others are more serious, like blood cancers or aplastic anemia, a condition that develops when bone marrow stops producing red blood cells at a healthy rate. Mild anemia may be one of the first signs of a serious condition that impedes your blood cell production, so even if the symptoms of the anemia itself are manageable, it shouldn’t be brushed off as nothing.
3. Anemia is Greek for lack of blood.
Put simply, someone with anemia doesn’t have a healthy amount of red blood cells or hemoglobin in their bloodstream. The word is a Latinized version of the Greek word anaimia, which means lack of blood (an meaning "without" and haima meaning "blood").
4. The fatigue comes from a lack of oxygen.
Even with a healthy respiratory system, the tissues of people with anemia may not get enough oxygen—a phenomenon known as hypoxia. This can lead to symptoms like headaches, dizziness, shortness of breath, and fatigue. While these symptoms can be debilitating in patients with severe anemia, they may be mild or even nonexistent in people with less severe cases. The signs are also hard to measure and can overlap with those of several chronic conditions, which means mild anemia often goes undiagnosed.
5. Anemia compels some people to chew ice.
Constantly craving an ice cube to chew on may be a sign your blood is at anemic levels. Pica is the medical term for the compulsion to chew substances devoid of nutritional value, like ice, dirt, and paper, and it's one of the more distinctive symptoms of iron deficiency anemia. Doctors still aren't entirely sure why the craving afflicts so many anemic patients. One explanation is that ice calms inflammation in the mouth that sometimes comes with iron deficiencies, while additional research suggests that chewing on ice is one way for fatigued people to stay alert.
6. It’s diagnosed with a simple blood test.
Though the symptoms can be tricky to identify, testing for anemia is simple once a doctor suspects a patient has it. After taking a sample, doctors calculate the complete blood count, or CBC, which measures the percentage of red blood cells (a measurement called the hematocrit) and hemoglobin in a patient’s blood. By looking at red blood cell and hemoglobin percentages specifically, they can determine if the patient’s blood is healthy or anemic. The typical adult man has blood with 40 to 52 percent red blood cells (the rest is plasma), and for the typical adult woman, it’s 35 to 47 percent, according to the Mayo Clinic.
7. Anemia is more common in developing nations.
Approximately 25 percent of the world population—almost 2 billion people—is affected by anemia. In about half of these cases, iron deficiency is the root cause. Anemia is more common in developing parts of the world where malnutrition is also rampant, while in the U.S., just under 6 percent of the population is anemic. In the U.S., the prevalence of anemia varies by group: Women, elderly people, African Americans, and Latino Americans are all more likely to have it, with black women between ages 80 and 85 developing the condition at rates 6.4 times higher than the national average, according to a 2016 study. The majority of anemia cases around the world are moderate or mild, and at those levels the lack of healthy blood cells itself doesn’t pose significant health risks (though an underlying disease that's causing it might).
8. Anemia also has a surprising benefit.
Having a low amount of iron in your body has an unexpected effect: It makes it harder for infections to develop. Most bacteria depends on iron to gain strength and spread throughout a host, and in the bodies of people with iron deficiency anemia, bacteria has a greater chance of dying before it multiplies into a dangerous infection. Studies have shown that people with low iron counts have a smaller risk of contracting malaria, tuberculosis, and certain respiratory conditions. Iron deficiency anemia can also boost survival rates in patients with HIV and lower the risk of cancer (like bacteria, cancer cells need iron to grow). Denying pathogens iron is such an effective way of killing them that our bodies naturally slow iron production when they detect an infection.
9. Pregnant people are more likely to have anemia ...
People who are pregnant have a much higher risk of becoming anemic. According to the World Health Organization, anemia affects over 40 percent of pregnant women worldwide. The bodies of pregnant women naturally produce about 20 to 30 percent more blood to supply oxygen to the baby, but it isn’t always enough for the mother to maintain healthy red blood cell and hemoglobin levels. Anemia is especially common during the second and third trimesters when the baby needs the most blood. Pregnant patients with anemia are usually prescribed iron supplements to prevent birth defects and complications during delivery.
10. … and so are vegetarians.
Many people get their iron by eating meat like beef, chicken, pork, and shellfish. Without meat in their diet, people have a greater chance of developing iron deficiency anemia: A small Indian study published in the Journal of Nutrition & Food Science found that approximately 60 percent of vegetarian women were anemic. But it is possible to consume healthy amounts of iron while adhering to a meat-free diet. In addition to dietary supplements, legumes, dried fruits, and leafy greens are great sources of the mineral.
11. Anemia treatments range from vitamins to blood transfusions.
Treatments for anemia vary depending on the cause of the condition. For iron deficiency anemia, the most common variety, doctors usually prescribe iron supplements as well as a diet rich in the foods mentioned above. Daily folic acid tablets and B12 shots—starting once every other day and transitioning to once a month—may also be prescribed to patients deficient in either vitamin. In cases when red blood cell and hemoglobin counts dip into dangerous territory, more drastic treatments like blood transfusions and bone marrow transplants may be necessary.