What is anemia?

Anemia is having less than the normal number of red blood cells or less hemoglobin than normal in the blood.

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How is anemia detected?

Anemia is usually detected or at least confirmed by a complete blood cell (CBC) count.

What is a complete blood cell (CBC) count?

In a CBC test, the different types of cells in the blood are counted and examined. Today, much of this work is often automated and done by machine. Six tests make up a CBC:

  • Red blood cell (RBC) count
  • Hematocrit
  • Hemoglobin
  • White blood cell (WBC) count
  • Differential blood count (the “diff”)
  • Platelet count

Only the first three of these tests: the red blood cell (RBC) count, the hematocrit, and the hemoglobin, are relevant to the diagnosis of anemia.

What is the red blood cell (RBC) count?

The red blood cells (RBCs) are the most common type of cells in the blood. Everyone has millions and millions of these little disc-shaped cells. The RBC count is done to determine if the number of red blood cells is low (anemia) or high (polycythemia).

In an RBC count, the number and size of the RBCs are determined. The shape of the red blood cells is also evaluated under a microscope. All of this information, the number, size and shape of the RBCs, is useful in the diagnosis of anemia and, if there is anemia, in the decision about the exact type of anemia.

What is the hematocrit?

The hematocrit is a very convenient way to determine whether the red blood cell count is too high, too low, or normal. The hematocrit is specifically a measure of how much of the blood is made of red cells.

How is an hematocrit done?

The hematocrit is often done by pricking the finger and drawing a drop of blood up into a thin glass tube. Another way is to draw a tube of blood from the arm.

The RBCs in the sample of blood are packed down by spinning the tube in a centrifuge under prescribed conditions. The proportion of the tube that consists of RBCs is then measured. Let’s say that it is 45%. The hematocrit is 45.

What is hemoglobin?

Hemoglobin is a red pigment; it imparts the familiar red color to red blood cells and to blood. Functionally, hemoglobin is the key chemical compound that combines with oxygen from the lungs and carries the oxygen from the lungs to cells throughout the body. Oxygen is essential for cells to produce energy. The blood also transports carbon dioxide, which is the waste product of this energy production process, back to the lungs from which it is exhaled into the air.

What does a low hemoglobin level mean?

People with a low hemoglobin level have anemia. When there is a low hemoglobin level, there is often a low red blood cell count and a low hematocrit, too.

What is the consequence of anemia?

Oxygen transport through the body is subnormal. The person with anemia is underoxygenated.

What are the symptoms of anemia?

People with anemia can feel tired, fatigue easily, appear pale, develop palpitations, and become short of breath.

What is the cause of anemia?

There is no one cause of anemia.

Can not enough iron be the problem?

Women are more likely than men to have anemia because of the loss of blood each month through menstruation. Iron deficiency anemia is common.

In adults, iron deficiency anemia is most often due to chronic blood loss. This can be from menstruation or from small amounts of repeated bleeding (which can be very subtle) due, for instance, to colon cancer.

Anemia can also be due to gastrointestinal bleeding caused by medications including such very common drugs as aspirin and ibuprofen (ADVIL, MOTRIN).

Getting a Diagnosis

Anemia is one disorder that you don’t want to self-diagnose. See a doctor if you’re tired all of the time. If he determines that you have a nutrition-related form of anemia, he may recommend some or all of the following nutrients:

Medical Alert

Most experts recommend that you consult your doctor before taking more than the Daily Value of iron (18 milligrams). Your doctor can prescribe the amount of iron that’s appropriate for you based on a blood test. A daily intake of 25 milligrams or more for an extended period of time may cause undesirable side effects.

In people with vitamin B12 deficiencies caused by malabsorption problems, doctors give the vitamin by injection to bypass the faulty digestive system.

Don’t take more than 15 milligrams of zinc daily without medical supervision.