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Diseases & Conditions

Anemia: What It Is, Causes, and How to Treat It

4 Mins read

Anemia is a condition in which your blood doesn’t have enough healthy red blood cells to carry oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body, causing you to feel tired and weak. 

This can happen because you’re not getting enough iron in your diet or you’re not producing enough new red blood cells as you should be. 

There are many possible causes of anemia, and that makes it difficult to treat, but there are things you can do to prevent it from happening and make yourself feel better if you do have it.


Anemia is a condition in which red blood cells are fewer than normal or that do not function properly. Red blood cells contain hemoglobin, an iron-containing protein that carries oxygen from your lungs to tissues throughout your body. 

Without oxygen, your cells starve and can’t perform their normal functions. Anemia can cause a variety of symptoms. A common symptom of a mild form of anemia is feeling tired or weak. If you have severe anemia, you may experience shortness of breath and chest pain. 

Severe anemia may also cause headaches, confusion and irritability. The two most common types of anemia are caused by low levels of iron or vitamin B12 in your body. 

Other causes include folic acid deficiency; lead poisoning; kidney failure; autoimmune diseases such as lupus; certain cancers such as leukemia; and digestive disorders such as celiac disease. 

Treatment for most types of anemia involves taking supplements containing vitamin B12 or iron, but other treatments may be necessary for more serious cases.


The most common symptoms of anemia are fatigue and weakness. This is because your body has a harder time getting oxygen when you have less red blood cells. 

Other symptoms include shortness of breath, lightheadedness, dizziness or fainting when standing up from sitting or lying down, paleness, cold hands or feet (because of lower levels of hemoglobin), loss of interest in sex or inability to achieve orgasm in men (due to lack of testosterone), headache, irritability, confusion or concentration problems (sometimes due to low blood sugar). 

Many people experience no symptoms at all. If that’s you and you’re concerned about anemia because a screening test revealed low red blood cell counts—rest easy.


A blood test can help determine if your anemia is due to a deficiency of iron or due to an underlying medical condition. If you’re diagnosed with iron-deficiency anemia, your doctor will recommend some level of iron supplementation. 

When it comes to measuring how much iron you need, there are two numbers that matter: hemoglobin and hematocrit levels. The former measures how much oxygen-carrying protein is in your blood; 60-80% is considered normal for men and women age 19-50. 

The latter measures how much red blood cells you have relative to total volume of liquid in your blood. For men, 40%-55% is normal while for women, 32%-45% is typical. 

Your doctor will work with you to figure out what dose of iron supplement works best based on these values. 

For example, some people may only require a small amount of supplemental iron while others may need more than 100 milligrams per day (the recommended daily allowance). 

To prevent constipation and other side effects from taking too much iron at once—which could be dangerous—you should take it over time rather than all at once.


There are three types of anemia. An iron-deficiency anemia is caused when you have a lack of iron in your body. 

This kind of anemia may cause you to feel weak or tired. A vitamin B12 deficiency can also cause an anemic condition, but unlike iron deficiency, it will not affect your red blood cells (RBCs) in any way; however, it can damage nerves if left untreated. 

An RBC count is a type of medical test that checks how many red blood cells there are in one microliter of your blood. If you have too few RBCs per microliter than normal for men or women under 40 years old, then you may be suffering from an RBC disorder. 

You should see a doctor if you notice symptoms like weakness, fatigue, paleness, dizziness or shortness of breath. The doctor will perform tests to determine what’s causing your anemia. 

They’ll check things like your red blood cell count and hemoglobin levels as well as other important values like white blood cell counts and platelet counts. Your doctor may recommend additional tests depending on what they find during their initial examination.

The Best Treatment Options

While iron supplements are effective at treating anemia caused by blood loss, they don’t treat anemic symptoms in all cases. If you have severe chronic anemia or if your hemoglobin levels are especially low (under 8 grams/dL), doctors might also recommend taking EPO injections (erythropoietin). 

These synthetic hormones stimulate production of red blood cells in bone marrow and can help patients achieve normal levels of hemoglobin. EPO injections are most often used when people with aplastic anemia can’t produce enough new red blood cells to replace old ones. 

Doctors may prescribe steroids along with the shots of EPO. Steroids work by suppressing immune system activity, which helps prevent attacks on red blood cells that are produced as part of treatment. 

The combination of EPO and steroid therapy is called splenectomy-free therapy because it allows patients to avoid removing their spleen—which is typically done during splenectomy procedures.


One of the best ways you can prevent anemia is to be sure you’re getting enough iron in your diet. Your body uses iron to build blood cells that carry oxygen from your lungs throughout your body. 

Dark green leafy vegetables are a great source of iron — but so are many other foods! Here are some delicious meals with high amounts of iron: Spinach pasta salad with low-fat cheese chunks; salmon or tuna on a bed of greens; black beans topped with avocado and salsa; stir-fried chicken over brown rice. 

If you aren’t getting enough iron from what you eat, or if for some reason your body isn’t absorbing it properly (this happens sometimes), talk to a doctor about possibly taking an iron supplement.

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