Anaemia is a deficiency in the number or quality of red blood cells in your body. Red blood cells carry oxygen around your body using a particular protein called haemoglobin. Anaemia means that either the level of red blood cells or the level of haemoglobin is lower than normal. When a person has anaemia, their heart has to work harder to pump the quantity of blood needed to get enough oxygen around their body. During heavy exercise, the cells may not be able to carry enough oxygen to meet the body’s needs and the person can become exhausted and feel unwell. Anaemia isn’t a disease in itself, but a result of a malfunction somewhere in the body. This blood condition is common, particularly in females. Some estimates suggest that around one in five menstruating women and half of all pregnant women are anaemic.
Symptoms of anaemia
Depending on the severity, the symptoms of anaemia may include:
- pale skin
- tiring easily
- drop in blood pressure when standing from a sitting or lying position (orthostatic hypotension) – this may happen after acute blood loss, like a heavy period
- frequent headaches
- racing heart or palpitations
- becoming irritated easily
- concentration difficulties
- cracked or reddened tongue
- loss of appetite
- strange food cravings.
Diagnosis of anaemia
Depending on the cause, anaemia is diagnosed using a number of tests including:
- medical history – including any chronic illnesses and regular medications
- physical examination – looking for signs of anaemia and a cause for anaemia
- blood tests – including complete blood count and blood iron levels, vitamin B12, folate and kidney function tests
- urine tests – for detecting blood in the urine
- gastroscopy or colonoscopy – looking for signs of bleeding
- bone marrow biopsy
- faecal occult blood test – examining a stool (poo) sample for the presence of blood.
Treatment for anaemia
Treatment depends on the cause and severity, but may include:
- vitamin and mineral supplements – if you have a deficiency
- iron injections – if you are very low on iron
- vitamin B12 (by injection) –for pernicious anaemia
- antibiotics – if infection is the cause of your anaemia
- altering the dose or regimen of regular medications – such as anti-inflammatory drugs, if necessary
- blood transfusions – if required
- oxygen therapy – if required
- surgery to prevent abnormal bleeding – such as heavy menstruation
- surgery to remove the spleen (splenectomy) – in cases of severe haemolytic anaemia.
Please note: Take iron supplements only when advised by your doctor. The human body isn’t very good at excreting iron and you could poison yourself if you take more than the recommended dose.