Anemia: Symptoms, Causes and Prevention


Anemia occurs when you have insufficient healthy red blood cells to carry adequate oxygen to the body’s tissues. There are many types of anemia, each with its own cause. Anemia can vary from mild to severe or chronic, it can also be temporary or permanent.

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Symptoms of Anemia

Anemia signs and symptoms vary depending on the cause. They may include:

  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Yellowish or pale or skin colour
  • Uneven heartbeats
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Dizziness
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Headache


Causes of Anemia

Anemia occurs when your blood lacks insufficient red blood cells. This can happen if:

  • Your body doesn’t make enough red blood cells
  • Your body destroys red blood cells
  • Bleeding causes you to lose red blood cells more quickly than they can be replaced

Functions of Red Blood Cells (RBC)

Your body makes three types of blood cells — white blood cells (WBC), to fight infection, platelets to help your blood clot and red blood cells (RBC), to carry oxygen all over your body.

RBC contain hemoglobin (an iron-rich protein that gives blood its red color). Hemoglobin enables RBC to carry oxygen from your lungs to all parts of your body and to carry carbon dioxide from other parts of the body to your lungs so that it can be exhaled.

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Most blood cells, including RBC, are produced regularly in the bone marrow (a spongy material found within the cavities of many of your large bones). To produce hemoglobin and red blood cells, your body needs iron, vitamin B-12, folate and other nutrients from foods you consume.

Causes of anemia

These are the different types of anemia and their causes:

  • Iron deficiency anemia: Iron deficiency anemia as the name implies is caused by a shortage of iron in your body. This is the most common type of anemia globally. Your bone marrow needs iron to produce hemoglobin and without adequate iron, your body can’t produce enough hemoglobin for RBC.

It is mostly pregnant women that experience this type of anemia. It is also caused by blood loss from an ulcer, cancer, regular use of some over-the-counter pain relievers and even by heavy menstrual bleeding.

  • Sickle cell anemia:This type of anemia is mostly inherited. It’s caused by a defective form of hemoglobin that forces red blood cells to assume an abnormal crescent (sickle) shape. These irregular blood cells die prematurely, resulting in a chronic shortage of red blood cells.
  • Vitamin deficiency anemia.The body needs also needs folate and vitamin B-12 to produce enough healthy red blood cells in addition to iron. A diet lacking in these and other key nutrients can cause decreased red blood cell production.

Some people may consume enough B-12, but their bodies are not able to process the vitamin. This can lead to vitamin deficiency anemia, also known as pernicious anemia.

  • Anemia of chronic disease:Certain diseases can interfere with the production of red blood cells such as HIV/AIDS, cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, kidney disease, Crohn’s disease and other chronic inflammatory diseases.
  • Aplastic anemia:This is a rare but life-threatening anemia that occurs when your body isn’t producing enough red blood cells. Causes of aplastic anemia include autoimmune diseases, infections, certain medicines and exposure to toxic chemicals.
  • Anemias associated with bone marrow disease: Diseases such as leukemia and myelofibrosis, can cause anemia by affecting blood production in your bone marrow.
  • Hemolytic anemias: This group of anemias occurs when red blood cells are destroyed faster than bone marrow can replace them. Certain blood diseases increase red blood cell destruction. You can inherit a hemolytic anemia, or you can develop it later in life.

There are several other forms of anemia, such as thalassemia and malarial anemia.

Risk factors

Factors that place you at increased risk of anemia include:

  • A diet lacking in certain vitamins:Your risk of anemia increases if you always consume foods low in iron, vitamin B-12 and folate.
  • Menstruation:Women who are yet to experienced menopause have a greater risk of iron deficiency anemia than do men and postmenopausal women. That’s because menstruation causes the loss of red blood cells.
  • Intestinal disorders.Having an intestinal disorder that affects the absorption of nutrients in your small intestine — such as Crohn’s disease and celiac disease — puts you at risk of anemia.
  • Pregnancy: Pregnant women who aren’t taking a multivitamin with folic acid, are at an increased risk of anemia.
  • Chronic conditions:Those battling kidney failure, cancer or another chronic condition, may be at risk of anemia of chronic disease. These conditions can lead to a shortage of red blood cells in the body.
  • Family history:If your family has a history of an inherited anemia, such as sickle cell anemia, you also may be at increased risk of the condition.
  • Other factors:A history of certain infections, blood diseases and autoimmune disorders, alcoholism, exposure to toxic chemicals, and the use of some medications can affect red blood cell production and lead to anemia.
  • Age:People over age 65 are at increased risk of anemia.


If left untreated, anemia can cause many health problems, such as:

  • Heart problems: Anemia can cause rapid or irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia). When you’re anemic your heart must pump more blood to make up for the lack of oxygen in the blood. This can lead to an enlarged heart or heart failure.
  • Severe fatigue:When anemia is severe enough, you may be so tired that you can’t carryout everyday tasks.
  • Pregnancy complications:Pregnant women with folate deficiency anemia may be more likely to experience complications, such as premature birth or miscarriages.
  • Death:Losing a lot of blood rapidly results in severe anemia, like in sickle cell anemia, which can ultimately lead to death.

When to see a doctor

At first anemia can be so mild that it can be overlooked, however symptoms worsen as the condition deteriorates. Make an appointment with your doctor if you’re feeling exhausted for inexplicable reasons. Iron deficiency anemia or vitamin B-12 deficiency, are the most common types.

When you experience fatigue, it may not necessarily means you are anemic. There are other factors that may be responsible for you feeling exhausted, check with your doctor first.

Prevention of Anemia

Eat a vitamin-rich diet

Iron and vitamin deficiency anemias can be avoided by having a diet that includes a variety of vitamins and nutrients, including:

  • Iron-rich foods include beef and other meats, beans, lentils, iron-fortified cereals, dark green leafy vegetables, and dried fruit.
  • This nutrient, and its synthetic form folic acid, can be found in fruits and fruit juices, green peas, dark green leafy vegetables, kidney beans, peanuts, and enriched grain products, such as bread, cereal, pasta and rice.
  • Vitamin B-12.Foods rich in vitamin B-12 include meat, dairy products, and fortified cereal and soy products.
  • Vitamin C.Foods rich in vitamin C include citrus fruits and juices, peppers, broccoli, tomatoes, melons and strawberries. These items help increase iron absorption.


You can consult your doctor to know whether a multivitamin may be good for you if you’re concerned about getting enough vitamins from the food you consume.

Genetic counseling

If you have a family history of an inherited anemia, such as sickle cell anemia or thalassemia, talk to your doctor and possibly a genetic counselor about your risk and what risks you may pass on to your children.

Prevent malaria

Frequent exposure to mosquito bites can cause anemia. Take preventive drugs recommended by your doctor if you plan on traveling to a place where malaria is common. In areas where malaria is common, use insecticides and fix mosquito nets on bed and window frames.


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