Overview of Anemia
As the blood circulates through the body, it delivers oxygen to our muscles and tissues, allowing them to function properly. Anemia occurs if somehow this oxygen is not delivered, either because there are not enough red blood cells or because the blood cells themselves do not have enough oxygen. Without enough oxygen to help our muscles and organs function optimally, our bodies become fatigued very quickly.
Anemia is most commonly caused by iron deficiency. Oxygen is carried in the red blood cells via a protein called hemoglobin, which binds the oxygen with the assistance of iron. Thus, if there is not enough iron available, the red blood cells will not be well oxygenated. Anemia can also be caused by reduction in the number of red blood cells, either because there has been significant blood loss or destruction of the red blood cells. In most cases, anemia is treatable through therapies focused on supplementing the blood with iron and ensuring that oxygenated blood cells are properly replenished.
Symptoms of Anemia
The symptoms of anemia can sometimes be mild and easily mistaken for other illnesses. Most people with anemia simply feel weak or fatigued, experience malaise, or have an inability to concentrate. In these cases, they may mistake the symptoms for part of fighting off an illness or being tired due to normal activities and stresses.
Outward symptoms of anemia include a general paleness of the skin, nails, and mucosal lining of the mouth. Painful cracking or lesions at the corners of the mouth, also called angular cheilitis, sometimes occurs. Anemia can also affect proper growth of fingernails and toenails, causing them to be unusually thin and flat, sometimes even concave. Severely anemic patients may also exhibit pica, a disorder often associated with iron deficiency in which there is a temptation to eat non-food items, such as dirt, grass, paper, and hair. In cases where the anemia is caused by destruction of the red blood cells, patients may exhibit jaundice.
In more severe cases of anemia, patients may feel short of breath upon exertion, due to the shortage of blood oxygen. The body may try to compensate by increasing the heart rate, causing the patient to experience heart palpitations and sweat even when they are not exerting themselves.
Risk Factors of Anemia
Because of the fatigue associated with anemia, many that suffer from it become less active, which can impact their health in the long term. Inadequate oxygen to the muscles causes them feel weak and make it difficult to perform physical tasks. If the heart rate increases in attempt to compensate for the lack of oxygen, this can also cause undue stress on the heart muscle and in more severe cases, lead to heart failure. The chronic feelings of tiredness can also lead to depression.
The iron and oxygen deficiencies can also cause physiological complications. Fingernails and toenails may become very brittle and prone to breaking. Some anemic patients are also intolerant to the cold, which induces numbness or tingling in their limbs. Children with untreated anemia may develop unusual behaviors or have difficulty at school, as it can impair their neurological development. Iron is critical for proper physical development, so children with iron deficiencies may also have delayed physical growth.
Anemia can also cause serious complications during pregnancy, putting the fetus at risk for premature birth, low birth weight, or rupture of the protective amniotic sac. These can result in infection and possibly loss of the baby.
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