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What Causes Anemia?

The House Call Doctor explains the different types of anemia, and their most common causes and symptoms--and fills you in on how anemia is diagnosed, and how to treat it.

By
Sanaz Majd, MD,
August 11, 2016
Episode #165

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Recently, my husband and I finally had the chance to go to the movies, after 3 years (since the birth of our twins.) We saw the intriguing sci-fi movie, “Lucy” (thanks to my sister, who babysat!) During the previews, there was one for a new movie called "Dracula," which I simply cannot wait to see (it's coming out right on time for Halloween, I presume!)

Of course, being both a doctor and the huge fantasy/sci-fi/vampire movie fan that I am, while watching this preview, I started thinking about how gravely ill all vampires appear. They look so pale and sickly--in fact, they just must be seriously anemic. Not to mention that their great thirst for blood must be a reflection of their body's low iron stores...

In any case, this long intro is simply divulge how I came upon the idea for this week's podcast topic: anemia.

Anemia is a diagnosis that I make on almost a daily basis in my practice as a physician. Despite it being such a common finding, though, it’s one that should not be ignored, because although in many patients it is easily treatable, it can occasionally be a sign of something more.

Anemia is often an initially vague finding that requires further detective work to delineate the cause. Although there are numerous causes of anemia, Iron-deficiency anemia (anemia due to low iron), specifically accounts for the majority of anemia subtypes, causing over 50% of all cases. 

So let’s learn about anemia today, with a greater focus on iron-deficiency anemia.

What is Anemia?

Anemia refers to a wide range of disorders that disturb the production of a protein in red blood cells that's called “hemoglobin.”  You may have heard this medical term if your doctor has diagnosed you with anemia, as it is measurable in the blood stream via a simple blood test called a “CBC.” 

Hemoglobin carries oxygen in the blood stream, so if we don’t have sufficient hemoglobin in our red blood cells, then we can’t carry oxygen--and we may not feel so well.   

Though they rarely sport the stereotypical vampire “pale” look, those with anemia often report the following, more common symptoms:

  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Heart palpitations or fast heart beat
  • Shortness of breath
  • Cravings for chewing ice

We need a good supply of iron in our bodies in order to produce hemoglobin (but be careful, because too much iron can also be toxic.) If we don’t have enough iron, then our hemoglobin production plummets, and we become anemic. 

We need a good supply of iron in our bodies in order to produce hemoglobin (but too much iron can also be toxic.)

Causes of Anemia

The diagnosis of anemia really encompasses a wide range of sub-types (other than iron-deficiency,) depending on the specific cause of the anemia.

First, let’s talk about some of the less common causes of anemia:

  • Alcoholism
  • Malnutrition
  • Pregnancy
  • Lead poisoning (mostly in children)
  • Vitamin B12 deficiency
  • Alpha and Beta Thalassemias (inherited disorders)
  • Leukemia
  • Myelodysplastic Syndrome
  • Kidney disease
  • Liver disease
  • Autoimmune disorders (such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis)
  • Chronic diseases (diabetes, chronic infections, malignancies, etc.)

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