Anaemia is a condition in which your blood is not able to carry enough oxygen to meet the needs of your body.

This inability is brought about by the reduction in the normal amount of red blood cells in the body or insufficient levels of the protein haemoglobin (within the red blood cells).

Anaemia causes include periods (menstruation), gastrointestinal blood loss, pregnancy, ulcers, angiodysplasia, chronic kidney disease, certain blood diseases, and a host of other reasons.

Those at risk of developing anaemia include women in childbearing years (due to blood loss during menstruation, or in pregnancy), infants and children who do not receive an adequate amount of iron in their diet, and elderly people.

People with chronic diseases such as cancer, kidney disease, HIV/AIDS, autoimmune disease, hepatitis C and other chronic inflammatory diseases are also at risk.

There are many types of anaemia, but the two most common types are:

  • Iron-deficiency anaemia, which is the most common type
  • Vitamin-deficiency anaemia caused by low levels of vitamin B12 or folic acid

What are its symptoms?

Anaemia can range from mild to severe. It is believed that the majority of people with mild anaemia don’t have any symptoms. Because of this, anaemia can go undetected.

Symptoms can include:

  • Tiredness and lethargy
  • Low blood pressure (if associated with blood loss)
  • Fainting
  • Shortness of breath
  • Heart palpitations
  • Pale complexion
  • A cold sensation in the extremities

These symptoms may be caused by problems other than anaemia. If you have any of these symptoms, consult your doctor.

How is it diagnosed?

A typical anaemia diagnosis will include your doctor questioning you about your symptoms and medical history, as well as a physical examination. If anaemia is suspected, your doctor will recommend a blood test. This may include:

  • A full blood count: This is to check the level of haemoglobin in your blood and how many of each of the different types of blood cells you have.
  • A blood film test: This involves looking at your blood under a microscope to check the size and shape of your red blood cells.
  • Levels of vitamin B12, iron and folic acid.

Other diagnostic tools may include a pelvic examination and a rectal examination.

What are your treatment options?

The treatment you have will depend on the cause of your anaemia, and it can vary considerably from person to person. For example, some people may just need to adjust their diet and take supplements of iron, folic acid or vitamin B12. Others may need to have a blood transfusion.

If you have anaemia caused by kidney failure, you may need to have injections of the hormone erythropoietin (also known as Epo).

Some people can experience side effects when taking iron supplements. These include:

  • Abdominal (stomach) pain
  • Constipation or diarrhoea
  • Heartburn
  • Feeling sick
  • Black stools (faeces)

Can it be prevented?

Simple adjustments to your lifestyle and eating habits may help with anaemia prevention.

If a lack of iron in your diet is thought to contribute to your iron-deficiency anaemia, you need to include more iron in your diet.

Iron-rich foods include:

  • Dark-green leafy vegetables, such as spinach, watercress and curly kale
  • Iron-fortified cereals or bread
  • Brown rice
  • Pulses and beans
  • Nuts and seeds
  • White and red meat
  • Fish
  • Tofu
  • Eggs
  • Dried fruit, such as dried apricots, prunes and raisins

If you have a condition that affects how well you absorb nutrients, or if you’re pregnant, you may need to take supplements. It may also benefit you to take iron tablets if you’re menstruating. There is also medication available for iron deficiency. Ask your doctor or Clicks pharmacist for more information.

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The accuracy of this information was checked and approved by physician Dr Thomas Blake in December 2015