Question of the Week

December 8, 2008


Since teens often feel tired as a result of their busy schedules and increased need for sleep during growth spurts, it can be difficult to identify when there might be another potential medical issue that is causing that feeling of tiredness.

"Because teens go through rapid growth spurts, they can be at risk for iron deficiency anemia. During a growth spurt, the body has a greater need for all types of nutrients, including iron, which we need to get in the foods we eat. After puberty, girls are at more risk of iron deficiency anemia than guys are. That's because a girl needs more iron to compensate for the blood lost during her menstrual periods. Pregnancy can also cause a girl to develop anemia. And a teen on a diet to lose weight may be getting even less iron. Vegetarians are more at risk of iron deficiency anemia than people who eat meat are. Red meat is the richest and best-absorbed source of iron. Although there is some iron in grains, vegetables, and some fruits and beans, there's less of it. And the iron in these food sources is not absorbed by the body as readily as the iron in meat."

A person with anemia may realize that there is a problem when they start to feel fatigued, they may feel other symptoms, or there may be no symptoms at all.

"Symptoms of anemia vary depending on the severity of the condition. Anemia may occur without symptoms and be detected only during a medical examination that includes a blood test. When they occur, symptoms may include:

  • Weakness and fatigue are the most common symptoms of even mild anemia.
  • Shortness of breath on exertion
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Headache
  • Ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
  • Irritability and other mood disturbances
  • Pale skin ...
  • Some studies have reported RLS in 25 - 30% of people with low iron levels. ...
  • Mental confusion"

Just as the symptoms of anemia can be varied, so can the causes. Iron deficiency anemia is just one of many types of anemia.

  • "Iron deficiency anemia. ... The cause is a shortage of the element iron in your body. Your bone marrow needs iron to make hemoglobin. Without adequate iron, your body can't produce enough hemoglobin for red blood cells....
  • Vitamin deficiency anemias. In addition to iron, your body needs folate and vitamin B-12 to produce sufficient numbers of healthy red blood cells. A diet lacking in these and other key nutrients can cause decreased red blood cell production. ...
  • Anemia of chronic disease. Certain chronic diseases -- such as cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn's disease and other chronic inflammatory diseases -- can interfere with the production of red blood cells, resulting in chronic anemia. ...
  • Aplastic anemia. This is a life-threatening anemia caused by a decrease in the bone marrow's ability to produce all three types of blood cells -- red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets. ...
  • Anemias associated with bone marrow disease. A variety of diseases, such as leukemia and myelodysplasia, a pre-leukemic condition, can cause anemia by affecting blood production in the bone marrow. ...
  • Hemolytic anemias. This group of anemias develops when red blood cells are destroyed faster than bone marrow can replace them. Certain blood diseases can cause increased red blood cell destruction. Autoimmune disorders can cause your body to produce antibodies to red blood cells, destroying them prematurely.
  • Sickle cell anemia. This inherited and sometimes serious anemia, which affects mainly people of African and Arabic descent, is caused by a defective form of hemoglobin that forces red blood cells to assume an abnormal crescent (sickle) shape. These irregular-shaped red blood cells die prematurely, resulting in a chronic shortage of red blood cells. Sickle-shaped red blood cells can also block blood flow through small blood vessels in the body, producing other, often painful, symptoms.
  • Other anemias. There are several other, rarer forms of anemia, such as thalassemia and anemias caused by defective hemoglobin."

Whatever the cause, the bottom line of anemia is the same: the body does not have enough healthy red blood cells to function at its best.

"Anemia is a condition that develops when your blood lacks enough healthy red blood cells. These cells are the main transporters of oxygen to organs. If red blood cells are also deficient in hemoglobin, then your body isn't getting enough iron. Symptoms of anemia—like fatigue—occur because organs aren't getting enough oxygen. Anemia is the most common blood condition in the U.S. It affects about 3.5 million Americans. Women and people with chronic diseases are at increased risk of anemia."

If a person suspects anemia, it is important to see a doctor.

"To diagnose anemia, your doctor will likely do the following:

  • Take your medical history
  • Perform a physical exam
  • Order laboratory tests
You can help by providing detailed answers about your symptoms, family medical history, diet, medications you take, alcohol intake, and ethnic background. Your doctor will look for symptoms of anemia and other physical clues that might point to a cause. Blood tests will not only confirm the diagnosis of anemia but also help point to the underlying condition."

Some forms of anemia are curable, others are manageable. With the help of a doctor, most people can determine the cause and best course of treatment for optimal health.

"The treatment of anemia depends on what's causing it. If the anemia is caused by iron deficiency, your doctor will probably prescribe an iron supplement to be taken several times a day. ... If someone's anemia is caused by another medical condition, doctors will work to treat the cause. People with some types of anemia will need to see a specialist, called a hematologist, who can provide the right medical care for their needs."

Questions of the Week:
What should you and your peers know about anemia? What circumstances could cause a person to be at increased risk for developing anemia? Under what conditions might you ask your health care provider about anemia? What can you do to reduce your risk of developing the types of anemia that are preventable?

Please email me with any ideas or suggestions.
Note: Due to increasing amounts of SPAM sent to this account, please include "QOW" in the subject line when sending me email.

I look forward to reading what you have to say.

Health Community Coordinator
Access Excellence @ the National Health Museum

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