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What is anaemia?

Anaemia is a condition which occurs when you have an abnormally low amount of red blood cells. Red blood cells contain haemoglobin, a red pigment which gives blood its colour. The job of haemoglobin is to carry oxygen around the body. When red blood cells and therefore haemoglobin are low the blood fails to supply the body’s tissues with sufficient amounts of oxygen. As your lungs and heart will then have to work harder to get oxygen into the blood, symptoms of anaemia, such as difficulty in breathing will begin to develop.

Anaemia mainly affects women during pregnancy or women who suffer with heavy periods.

What causes anaemia?

There is not usually one cause of anaemia, however, the following are reasons why anaemia may develop:

  • Heavy periods.
  • Diet low in iron.
  • Internal bleeding, for example if you have an ulcer or a tumour.
  • Diet low in vitamin B12 or folic acid.
  • Blood diseases such as leukaemia.
  • Infections, such as malaria.

What are the different types of anaemia?

The main types of anaemia are caused by shortages of iron, vitamin B12 and folic acid, all of which are needed (among other things) to produce red blood cells, so if one or more of these are missing or running low then anaemia will develop.

Iron deficiency anaemia

The most common type of anaemia is iron deficiency anaemia, which basically means the body is running low on iron. The body needs iron to successfully produce haemoglobin the substance that carries oxygen throughout the body.

The main reason why people may have a shortage of iron is because the body is losing blood faster than the body can remake it. This can be caused by gastritis, piles, stomach cancer, ulcers or bowel cancer. In women the most common reason for iron deficiency is menstrual bleeding (periods). Another possible reason for a shortage of iron is diet, which is low in iron. Good sources of iron include fruit, dark green vegetables, wholemeal bread, fortified breakfast cereals, beans and meat.

Vitamin B12 deficiency anaemia

The main cause of vitamin B12 deficiency anaemia (also called pernicious anaemia) is when there is inadequate absorption of vitamin B12 from the diet. This can be due to ulcers, stomach cancer, diseases of the small intestine or from the after effects of surgery.

A vegan or vegetarian is at risk of developing pernicious anaemia because vitamin B12 is only found in foods of animal origin. Vitamin B12 can be found in liver, meat and dairy products.

Vitamin B12 is also essential for the nervous system, so if you have a lack of vitamin B12 you can also develop inflammation of the nerves or  dementia.

Folic Acid deficiency

The main reason why you may have a lack of folic acid is due to a poor diet and if you drink excessive alcohol it can reduce the uptake of folic acid. Folic acid can be found in fresh fruit, raw green vegetables, beans and whole grain cereals.

Folic acid deficiency and vitamin B12 deficiency anaemia may also be known as megaloblastic anaemia.

For more information on a healthy balanced diet click here.

What symptoms are linked with anaemia?

As anaemia causes a shortage of oxygen, the main symptom is usually chronic tiredness and palpitations. Other symptoms you may get could include:

  • Pale appearance
  • Shortness of breath and dizziness
  • Fainting
  • Angina
  • A red, sore tongue and a reduced sense of taste, this is usually only a symptom with folic acid and vitamin B12 deficiency anaemia.

Is there anything I can do to avoid becoming anaemic?

To avoid getting anaemia you should stick to a healthy balanced diet and ensure you eat food that contains good sources of iron, folic acid and vitamin B12. You should also cut down on alcohol consumption. If you are a strict vegetarian you should take vitamin B12 supplements to avoid deficiency.

How is anaemia diagnosed?

Very few tests are needed to diagnose anaemia, the main test is a full blood count, this is basically a blood test that looks at the number, size and shape of red blood cells. The doctor may also measure iron, vitamin B12 and folic acid levels. If anaemia is diagnosed and there is no obvious cause, your doctor may suggest you have an x-ray to ensure there is no internal bleeding.

How is anaemia treated?

The treatment you receive will depend greatly on the cause of anaemia. Treatment is usually simple and may be resolved with an improved diet or by taking supplements. If the cause of your anaemia is vitamin B12 deficiency then your doctor may prescribe vitamin B12 injections. These injections will need to be given every 3 months, usually throughout the patient’s life. It is also possible to have iron injections but this is not often necessary.

If your anaemia has been caused by internal bleeding e.g. ulcers then medicines or surgery may be required. If anaemia is severe then you may also need to have a blood transfusion.

What happens if anaemia is left untreated?

If anaemia is left untreated your symptoms will get worse and you may become very tired and weak, you may also develop angina or suffer with leg pains when walking. The body’s ability to fight infection may also be weakened so you may find you pick up infections more easily.

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