11 Facts About Anemia

David Gregory & Debbie Marshall, Wellcome Collection // CC BY 4.0
David Gregory & Debbie Marshall, Wellcome Collection // CC BY 4.0

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.

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Bad Blood: The Hidden Horror of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study

A doctor draws blood from one of the study’s subjects.
A doctor draws blood from one of the study’s subjects.

In September of 1932, Public Health Service officials visited Tuskegee, Alabama, where they recruited 600 Black men to receive treatment for “bad blood.” The men didn’t realize they had become unwitting participants in one of the most controversial medical studies in recent times.

Of the study’s participants, 399 of the men were suffering from the advanced stages of syphilis, which at that time was incurable, while the other 201 served as controls. Under the guise of offering medical treatment, the Public Health Service set out to study the effects of untreated syphilis in Black men. Doctors enticed the poor, mostly illiterate Macon County residents to take part in return for free medical examinations, rides to the clinic, and hot meals on examination days. For the participants, many of whom had never even visited a doctor, the offer seemed too good to refuse.

A Secretive Study

Nurse Eunice Rivers interacts with a few members of the study.National Archives/Center for Disease Control // Public Domain

Deception was integral to the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. The men did not know they were actually participating in an experiment, and were kept in the dark about the true nature of their diagnosis. They were also unaware they weren’t receiving treatment at all: The drugs they were administered were either inadequate or completely ineffective. At one point, they were even given diagnostic spinal taps, a painful and often complex procedure the doctors referred to as a “special treatment.”

Though the study was originally meant to last for six months, the Public Health Service decided to continue it when the participating doctors deemed that only autopsies could determine the damage the disease caused. In other words, the doctors would keep tabs on the men until they died.

To ensure nothing would interfere with the experiment, doctors in Macon County were given a list of the subjects and instructed to refer them to the Public Health Service if they sought medical treatment. The Public Health Service even hired Eunice Rivers, a Black nurse, to maintain contact with the men and ensure their continued participation. All the while, the experiment's subjects were left to degenerate—when untreated, syphilis can cause bone deformations, heart disease, blindness, and deafness.

A medical breakthrough came in 1947, when penicillin became the standard treatment for syphilis. Despite this, the doctors involved in the Tuskegee study opted not to treat the men so they could continue to monitor the disease's natural progression. As historian Dr. Crystal Sanders tells Mental Floss in an email, “By withholding treatment, doctors subjected these men, their spouses, and their offspring to serious health problems and death.”

The End of the Experiment

None of the medical professionals involved in the decades-long study admitted to any wrongdoing.National Archives/Center for Disease Control // Public Domain

The study was not without its critics. When Public Health Service official Peter Buxtun learned about the experiment in 1966, he expressed grave moral concerns to the Centers for Disease Control. After numerous organizations, doctors, and scientists still opposed ending the study, Buxtun took matters into his own hands and leaked information about the experiment to Associated Press journalist Jean Heller.

On July 26, 1972, The New York Times ran a front page story exposing the study. Public outrage immediately ensued, but by then the damage was done. At least seven of the men had died from syphilis, while more than 150 had died from heart failure, a condition commonly linked to the infection. Forty spouses had also contracted syphilis, and 19 children were born with the condition. Some of the infected women, who believed the study was legitimate medical care, were turned away when they attempted to enroll. 

Once the study became public knowledge, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare promptly ruled that the 40-year-long experiment come to an immediate end. Yet despite the national outcry, none of the medical professionals involved in the study were prosecuted. “They maintained that they had done nothing wrong,” Sanders explains. “Some even went so far as to assert that the Black male subjects would never have been treated anyway given their financial circumstances, so their study did not harm them.”

With the experiment finally over, the government appointed Dr. Vernal G. Cave to lead a team of Black doctors to investigate. He found that while the experiment was being carried out, at least 16 articles about it had been published in various medical journals. So why had it taken so long to bring the study to an end?

“The subjects were Black and poor and did not warrant much attention from the powers that be,” Sanders says. “Additionally, very few people with the political and social capital to ask questions would have been suspicious of a study underwritten by the federal government and carried out by medical practitioners who had the respect of the local white society.”

A Public Reckoning

In 1973, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of the study's participants and their families, and the following year a $10 million out-of-court settlement was reached. The U.S. government also agreed to provide free medical treatment to the study’s surviving participants, as well as their family members who became infected during the experiment.

The story of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study was brought to the screen 14 years later in the made-for-TV movie Miss Evers’ Boys. When the study’s participants saw the film, they were disappointed by its portrayal of the series of events. It suggested the men had received treatment for their condition, and shifted the blame from the federal government to a fictitious Black doctor and a Black nurse. As a response to the film, the participants enlisted the help of attorney Fred Gray to make sure the nation understood the truth behind the study.

In March 1997, Gray wrote a letter to president Bill Clinton requesting the victims receive a formal apology. Two months later, and more than 50 years after the experiment began, Clinton delivered his apology in a speech at the White House. By that time, only eight of the men were still alive.

“The United States government did something that was wrong — deeply, profoundly, morally wrong,” Clinton said. “What was done cannot be undone. But we can end the silence. We can stop turning our heads away. We can look at you in the eye and finally say on behalf of the American people, what the United States government did was shameful, and I am sorry.”

Though the last survivor of the study died in 2004, the experiment has had a lasting effect on the African-American community. A 2016 study found that after the Tuskegee study was exposed, the life expectancy of Black men decreased by 1.5 years, with a marked decrease in patient-physician interactions [PDF]. “There is a long history of poor Black people seeking preventative care and getting anything but that,” Sanders says. “I wholeheartedly believe that there is a connection between present-day African American distrust of the medical field and the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment.”