Anemia is the world’s most common blood disorder. It affects about three million people in the US and over 1.6 billion people in the world. Here’s why it’s critical to know how to identify anemia symptoms. While anybody can develop anemia, it is most common in small children. Anemia can also affect some animals, including dogs and cats.
There are over 400 types of anemia. A patient with anemia, however, will always have an abnormally low number of red blood cells circulating through their body. In many cases, the patient will have a condition that is causing their body to break down red blood cells at an abnormally rapid rate or impairing their body’s ability to produce new red blood cells.
Anemia Symptoms Fall Into Three Categories
The different types of anemia fall into three broad categories:
- Anemia caused by blood loss
- Anemia caused by the destruction of red blood cells
- Anemic blood caused by a faulty production of red blood cell
Blood loss can be chronic or acute. Conditions that can cause chronic blood loss include stomach ulcers and some types of cancer. Acute blood loss can arise from injury or surgery.
Red blood cells usually have a lifespan of around four months, but some conditions can destroy them before they reach that age. One example is autoimmune hemolytic anemia, in which the body’s immune system attacks and destroys the red blood cells.
There are also a variety of disorders that cause the body to produce either too few blood cells or abnormal blood cells. Examples include sickle-cell anemia and leukemia.
Anemia has a multitude of symptoms. Some, such as a lack of energy, occur with any variation of the disease. Other anemia symptoms are seen only in certain types of the condition. For example, a patient with hemolytic anemia may have abnormally dark urine.
15 Anemia Symptoms to Never Ignore
1. Lack of Energy
Fatigue or lack of energy is the most common symptom of anemia and occurs in every type. The red blood cells have a significant job of transporting oxygen throughout the body. If red blood cells are deficient, there will also be a deficiency of oxygen in the patient’s body so that they will feel constantly tired. Chronic fatigue admittedly has many causes, like stress, poor sleep, or other illnesses. If none of these apply, however, it is probably time to call the doctor.
2. Shortness of Breath
Shortness of breath is also one of the more common anemia symptoms. A patient with anemia will often feel winded even after such a minor exertion as climbing a flight of stairs. As with chronic fatigue, the patient doesn’t have enough healthy red blood cells to transport the oxygen their body needs. In some cases, dizziness and lightheadedness will accompany the patient’s breathing difficulties.
Unusually pale skin is another one of the anemia symptoms to watch for. The lack of blood cells and the resulting decrease in circulation will also make the gums and tongue paler than usual. The eyelids have mucous membranes covered with blood vessels. If these look unusually pale, they could also indicate anemia.
There are many things that can cause headaches, so a problem by itself may not indicate anemia. On the other hand, if the patient has some of the other symptoms of anemia plus a susceptibility to headaches, they need to see their doctor. In anemia, headaches indicate that the body isn’t getting enough oxygen or blood. This is especially true if the problems are accompanied by dizziness or feelings of faintness. Frequent headaches can indicate iron deficiency anemia, which is the most common type of anemia.
Jaundice is one of the anemia symptoms seen mainly in certain types of anemia. In jaundice, the patient’s skin and eyes take on a yellowish tinge. The color is caused by an accumulation of a waste material called bilirubin. Jaundice is particularly common in hemolytic anemia, which causes the body to destroy red blood faster than it can produce new ones. The destruction of the blood cells causes the production of an abnormally high amount of bilirubin. Jaundice can also occur in sickle cell anemia.
6. Hair Loss
Hair loss can be one of the symptoms of iron deficiency anemia. The hemoglobin in red blood cells stimulates hair growth, so a lack of hemoglobin will make hair fall out. It will also cause the remaining hair to become thinner and weaker.
In 2006, the “Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology” published an overview of various studies that researched possible links between iron deficiency anemia and different types of hair loss. While the researchers noted that the studies produced mixed results, they also commented that their hospital, the Cleveland Clinic, always screened patients with hair loss for iron deficiency.
7. Restless Leg Syndrome
Restless leg syndrome (RLS) is often one of the iron deficiency anemia symptoms. The condition is characterized by unpleasant sensations like itching or throbbing in the legs accompanied by a compulsion to move them. Patients typically experience the feelings and convulsions at night, and the symptoms’ intensity depends on the severity of the patient’s anemia.
In 2016, the science journal “Neurology” published an overview that described the causes of restless leg syndrome, which can be primary or secondary. Primary RLS occurs by itself, while secondary RLS is symptomatic of certain conditions – like iron deficiency anemia. The scientists reported that RLS occurs in 25 to 35 percent of patients with iron deficiency anemia.
8. Painful and Swollen Extremities
Painful swelling of the feet and hands is one of the anemia symptoms seen in sickle cell anemia, which is the most common inherited blood disorder. The condition affects 70,000 to 100,000 people in the United States alone. It is particularly common in African-Americans and affects about eight percent of them.
Sickle cell anemia is a congenital condition in which the red blood cells are sickle-shaped and rigid. The abnormal blood cells can get stuck in the vessels, and the resulting blockage causes pain and swelling in the hands and feet.
9. Chest Pain
Chest pain can also be one of the anemia symptoms. The lack of healthy red blood cells means that the heart has to work a lot harder to send nutrients around the body. It also isn’t getting the oxygen it needs to function. Consequently, a patient with anemia will experience pain and a feeling of tightness in their chest. Anemia can also cause the heart to develop an abnormal rhythm as it works hard to make the blood circulate.
Confusion is one of the anemia symptoms seen in vitamin deficiency anemia, which is caused by a lack of Vitamin B9 (folate), Vitamin C, or Vitamin B12. That deficiency, in turn, can be caused by either poor diet or the body’s inability to absorb the nutrients. Pernicious anemia, which is seen mainly in people over 60, is an example of the latter problem. The patient’s body can’t absorb the Vitamin B12 needed to produce healthy red blood cells. Vitamin B12 is also necessary for a healthy nervous system, so pernicious anemia can cause symptoms like an impaired ability to concentrate or remember.
When the body is short of blood, it will prioritize sending the available blood to the vital organs. Consequently, less blood will go to the hands, feet, legs, and arms. Numbness of the extremities is, therefore, one of the anemia symptoms to watch for.
12. Abnormally Long or Heavy Periods
Growths called uterine fibroids can cause women to have unusually heavy periods. Such periods cause a woman to lose more blood than her body can replace. Uterine fibroids also cause a woman’s period to last atypically long, so she loses yet more blood. If a woman’s period lasts for over a week, or she needs to change pads every hour for several hours straight, she should call her doctor.
13. Cold Hands and Feet
As mentioned earlier, if the body doesn’t have enough healthy red blood cells, it will send most of them to the vital organs. Relatively few will be sent to the feet or hands, and they will thus feel abnormally cold, even if the patient is someplace hot.
Pica is the compulsive desire to eat things that aren’t food, like ice or clay. It is most common in patients with iron deficiency anemia for lack of iron can trigger strange cravings.
15. Susceptibility to Infections
This symptom is particularly common in patients with iron deficiency anemia, for the lack of iron impairs their immune system’s ability to function. In other types of anemia, the lack of red blood cells makes it harder for the body to send oxygen to the spleen, which filters blood traveling through the veins and thus prevents infection.
A patient with anemia will thus be less able to resist infection, and they will still sick longer.
Final Thoughts of Identifying Anemia Symptoms
Treatment for anemia will depend on the type and its cause. In some cases, the therapy will be straightforward. For example, a patient with iron deficiency anemia will need to take iron supplements and possibly modify their diet. Other patients may need more involved treatments like transfusions. If some other condition causes anemia symptoms, the doctor will treat that condition.