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Anemia is a condition in which you lack enough healthy red blood cells to carry adequate
oxygen to your body's tissues. Having anemia can make you feel tired and weak.
There are many forms of anemia, each with its own cause. Anemia can be temporary or long
term, and it can range from mild to severe. See your doctor if you suspect that you have anemia.
It can be a warning sign of serious illness.
Treatments for anemia range from taking supplements to undergoing medical procedures. You
might be able to prevent some types of anemia by eating a healthy, varied diet.
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Book: The Mayo Clinic A to Z Health Guide
Newsletter: Mayo Clinic Health Letter
Aplastic anemia
Iron deficiency anemia
Sickle cell anemia
Vitamin deficiency anemia
Anemia signs and symptoms vary depending on the cause. If the anemia is caused by a chronic
disease, the disease can mask them, so that the anemia might be detected by tests for another
Depending on the causes of your anemia, you might have no symptoms. Signs and symptoms, if
they do occur, might include:
Pale or yellowish skin
Irregular heartbeats
Shortness of breath
Dizziness or lightheadedness
Chest pain
Cold hands and feet
At first, anemia can be so mild that you don't notice it. But symptoms worsen as anemia worsens.
When to see a doctor
Make an appointment with your doctor if you're feeling fatigued and you don't know why.
Fatigue has many causes besides anemia, so don't assume that if you're tired you must be anemic.
Some people learn that their hemoglobin is low, which indicates anemia, when they donate
blood. If you're told that you can't donate because of low hemoglobin, make an appointment with
your doctor.
Request an Appointment at Mayo Clinic
Anemia occurs when your blood doesn't have enough red blood cells.
This can happen if:
Your body doesn't make enough red blood cells
Bleeding causes you to lose red blood cells more quickly than they can be replaced
Your body destroys red blood cells
What red blood cells do
Your body makes three types of blood cells — white blood cells to fight infection, platelets to
help your blood clot and red blood cells to carry oxygen throughout your body.
Red blood cells contain hemoglobin — an iron-rich protein that gives blood its red color.
Hemoglobin enables red blood cells 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 to be exhaled.
Most blood cells, including red blood cells, are produced regularly in your 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 the
foods you eat.
Causes of anemia
Different types of anemia have different causes. They include:
Iron deficiency anemia. This most common type of anemia is caused by a shortage of
iron in your body. Your bone marrow needs iron to make hemoglobin. Without adequate
iron, your body can't produce enough hemoglobin for red blood cells.
Without iron supplementation, this type of anemia occurs in many pregnant women. It is
also caused by blood loss, such as from heavy menstrual bleeding, an ulcer, cancer and
regular use of some over-the-counter pain relievers, especially aspirin, which can cause
inflammation of the stomach lining resulting in blood loss.
Vitamin deficiency anemia. Besides iron, your body needs folate and vitamin B-12 to
produce enough healthy red blood cells. A diet lacking in these and other key nutrients
can cause decreased red blood cell production.
Also, some people who consume enough B-12 aren't able to absorb the vitamin. This can
lead to vitamin deficiency anemia, also known as pernicious anemia.
Anemia of inflammation. Certain diseases — such as cancer, HIV/AIDS, rheumatoid
arthritis, kidney disease, Crohn's disease and other acute or chronic inflammatory
diseases — can interfere with the production of red blood cells.
Aplastic anemia. This rare, life-threatening anemia occurs when your body doesn't
produce enough red blood cells. Causes of aplastic anemia include infections, certain
medicines, autoimmune diseases and exposure to toxic chemicals.
Anemias associated with bone marrow disease. A variety of diseases, such as leukemia
and myelofibrosis, can cause anemia by affecting blood production in your bone marrow.
The effects of these types of cancer and cancer-like disorders vary from mild to lifethreatening.
Hemolytic anemias. This group of anemias develops 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.
Sickle cell anemia. This inherited and sometimes serious condition is a hemolytic
anemia. 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.
Risk factors
These factors place you at increased risk of anemia:
A diet lacking in certain vitamins and minerals. A diet consistently low in iron,
vitamin B-12 and folate increases your risk of anemia.
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
Menstruation. In general, women who haven't had menopause have a greater risk of iron
deficiency anemia than do men and postmenopausal women. Menstruation causes the
loss of red blood cells.
Pregnancy. If you're pregnant and aren't taking a multivitamin with folic acid and iron,
you're at an increased risk of anemia.
Chronic conditions. If you have cancer, kidney failure, diabetes or another chronic
condition, you could be at risk of anemia of chronic disease. These conditions can lead to
a shortage of red blood cells.
Slow, chronic blood loss from an ulcer or other source within your body can deplete your
body's store of iron, leading to iron deficiency anemia.
Family history. If your family has a history of an inherited anemia, such as sickle cell
anemia, you also might be at increased risk of the condition.
Other factors. A history of certain infections, blood diseases and autoimmune disorders
increases your risk of anemia. 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.
Left untreated, anemia can cause many health problems, such as:
Severe fatigue. Severe anemia can make you so tired that you can't complete everyday
Pregnancy complications. Pregnant women with folate deficiency anemia may be more
likely to have complications, such as premature birth.
Heart problems. Anemia can lead to a 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.
Death. Some inherited anemias, such as sickle cell anemia, can lead to life-threatening
complications. Losing a lot of blood quickly results in acute, severe anemia and can be
Many types of anemia can't be prevented. But you can avoid iron deficiency anemia and vitamin
deficiency anemias by eating a diet that includes a variety of vitamins and minerals, including:
Iron. Iron-rich foods include beef and other meats, beans, lentils, iron-fortified cereals,
dark green leafy vegetables, and dried fruit.
Folate. This nutrient, and its synthetic form folic acid, can be found in fruits and fruit
juices, dark green leafy vegetables, green peas, 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 also help increase iron absorption.
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