Most people don’t take fatigue seriously. Women in our country, in particular, ignore warning signs like exhaustion or chest pain, thinking that a break from work and family pressures is all that they need. While this may be the case in some cases, it never hurts to show a doctor when you feel fatigued for no apparent reason as you might be suffering from anaemia.
What is Anaemia?
Anaemia is the most common disorder of the blood but it often goes undetected in many people as the symptoms can be vague and minor. It is a medical condition in which you don’t have enough healthy red blood cells to carry adequate oxygen to your tissues. In other words, the red blood cells or haemoglobin count of anaemic patients is less than normal.
The normal level of haemoglobin is generally different in males and females. For men, anaemia is typically defined as haemoglobin level of less than 13.5 gram/100 ml and in women as haemoglobin of less than 12.0 gram/100 ml. These definitions may vary slightly depending on the source and the laboratory reference used.
What Causes Anaemia?
There can be many causes for anaemia; the most common one being loss of blood. However, there are other different forms of anaemia, each with its own cause. While some forms of anaemia can be short term, others might be permanent.
Iron deficiency anaemia is caused by a shortage of the element iron in your body. Your bone needs iron to make haemoglobin. Without adequate iron, your body can’t produce enough haemoglobin for red blood cells. This type of anaemia is often caused by blood loss, such as from heavy menstrual bleeding, an ulcer, cancer, a polyp somewhere in your digestive system, and prolonged use of aspirin or drugs known as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs
Vitamin deficiency anaemia. In addition to iron, your body needs folate and vitamin B-12 to produce sufficient numbers of healthy red blood cells. A diet lacking in these and other key nutrients can cause decreased red blood cell production. Additionally, some people may eat enough B-12, but their bodies aren’t able to process the vitamin. This can lead to vitamin deficiency anaemia.
Anaemia of chronic disease. Certain chronic diseases — such as cancer, HIV/AIDS, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease and other chronic inflammatory diseases — can interfere with the production of red blood cells, resulting in chronic anaemia. Kidney failure also can cause anaemia.
Aplastic anaemia This very rare life-threatening anaemia is caused by a decrease in the bone marrow’s ability to produce red blood cells. Causes of aplastic anaemia include infections, drugs and autoimmune diseases.
Haemolytic anaemia, This group of anaemia develops when red blood cells are destroyed faster than bone marrow can replace them. Certain blood diseases can cause increased red blood cell destruction. Haemolytic anaemia can be inherited, or you can develop them later in life.
Sickle cell anaemia, This inherited and sometimes serious anaemia is caused by a defective form of haemoglobin that forces red blood cells to assume an abnormal crescent (sickle) shape. These irregular-shaped red blood cells die prematurely, resulting in a chronic shortage of red blood cells.
What are the Symptoms
Anaemia symptoms vary depending on the cause of your anaemia. Initially, anaemia can be so mild that it goes unnoticed even when you visit a doctor. However, over time if it goes untreated and the symptoms increase, one’s anaemia will definitely worsen. Symptoms may include fatigue, pale skin, a fast or irregular heartbeat, shortness of breath, chest pain, dizziness, cognitive problems, cold hands and feet and headaches.
When are You at Risk?
If you have a diet which is low in iron, vitamin B and folate, you are at an increased risk of being diagnosed with anaemia. Apart from that having an intestinal disorder such as Crohn’s disease and celiac disease can also put you at risk for anaemia.
Generally, women who are menstruating are at greater risk of anaemia than postmenopausal women or men as menstruation causes the loss of red blood cells. Pregnant women are also at an increased risk of iron deficiency anaemia because their iron stores have to serve the increased blood volume as well as be a source of haemoglobin for the growing foetus.
If you are suffering from a chronic condition such as cancer, kidney or liver failure, you are at risk for what’s called anaemia of chronic disease. These conditions can lead to a shortage of red blood cells. If your family has a history of an inherited anaemia, such as sickle cell anaemia, you also may be at increased risk for the condition.
What are the Complications?
Left untreated, anaemia can cause numerous complications, such as severe fatigue, which leaves you so tired that you can’t complete everyday tasks. Anaemia can also lead to a rapid or irregular heartbeat, an arrhythmia, whereby your heart must pump more blood to compensate for the lack of oxygen in the blood when you’re anaemic. This can even lead to congestive heart failure. Some inherited anaemia, such as sickle cell anaemia, can be serious and lead to life-threatening complications. Losing a lot of blood quickly results in acute, severe anaemia and can be fatal.
There’s no specific treatment for the anaemia of chronic disease. Doctors focus on treating the underlying disease. If symptoms become severe, a blood transfusion or injections of synthetic erythropoietin, a hormone normally produced by your kidneys, may help stimulate red blood cell production and ease fatigue.
Treatment for aplastic anaemia may include blood transfusions to boost levels of red blood cells. You may need a bone marrow transplant if your bone marrow is diseased and can’t make healthy blood cells.
Managing haemolytic anaemia includes avoiding suspect medications, treating related infections and taking drugs that suppress your immune system, which may be attacking your red blood cells. Short courses of treatment with steroids or immune suppressant medications can help suppress your immune system’s attack on your red blood cells.
Treatment for this sickle-cell anaemia may include the administration of oxygen, pain-relieving drugs, and oral and intravenous fluids to reduce pain and prevent complications. Doctors may also recommend blood transfusions, folic acid supplements and antibiotics. A bone marrow transplant may be an effective treatment in some circumstances.
While many forms of anaemia can’t be prevented, you can avoid iron deficiency anaemia and vitamin deficiency anaemia by choosing a diet that includes a variety of vitamins and nutrients. Iron-rich foods include beef and other meats, beans, lentils, iron-fortified cereals, dark green leafy vegetables, and dried fruit. Foods containing vitamin C — such as citrus fruits, melons and berries — help increase iron absorption. Vitamin B-12 is found naturally in meat and dairy products and also added to some cereals and soy products like soy milk.
If you have a family history of an inherited anaemia, such as sickle cell anaemia, talk to your doctor and possibly a genetic counsellor about your risk and what risks you may pass on to your children.