Anemia happens when your body does not produce enough healthy red blood cells.

There are more than 400 types of anemia. Figuring out what’s going on with your bod can get confusing AF.

What is anemia?

Anemia is a condition that can occur if you don’t have enough healthy red blood cells. This can lead to beaucoup medical conditions that range from mild to severe.

The main types of anemia are:

  • aplastic anemia
  • sickle cell anemia
  • hemolytic anemia
  • iron deficiency anemia
  • anemia of inflammation
  • vitamin deficiency anemia
  • anemia associated with bone marrow disease
  • anemia due to chronic kidney disease
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But don’t worry! Whether you’re currently living with anemia or just want to learn more about it so you can keep it at bay as best you can, we’ve got your back.

Here’s your ultimate guide to all things anemia, including the types and causes, symptoms, prevention, and treatment.

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Anemia can occur when your body:

  • destroys red blood cells
  • doesn’t produce enough red blood cells
  • loses red blood cells faster than it can replace them

A quick note on red blood cells

Red blood cells are uber important to your overall health. And we don’t use the word “uber” lightly — they’re the taxi service for the oxygen in your body.

They transport oxygen to your body’s tissues and help you get rid of carbon dioxide (bye, Felicia). And they don’t even ask for a five-star rating afterward.

Anemia can affect this process in many ways.

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Here’s a breakdown of each type of anemia and what can cause it.

Iron deficiency anemia

This is the most common type of anemia. It happens when your body has an iron shortage.

Without the right amount of iron, you can’t produce enough hemoglobin for your red blood cells to function on fleek.

The following may cause it:

It’s also common in peeps who are pregnant (because your bébé needs iron, too).

Aplastic anemia

This rare form of anemia happens when your body doesn’t make enough red blood cells. The following can trigger aplastic anemia:

  • infections
  • certain medications
  • autoimmune conditions
  • exposure to toxic chemicals
  • pregnancy
  • chemotherapy and radiation

Sickle cell anemia (SCA)

SCA is a genetic disorder that’s present at birth. It occurs when a defective type of hemoglobin turns the form of red blood cells into a crescent-like shape.

These irregular cells die early. This can result in a red blood cell shortage.

Hemolytic anemia

This type of anemia occurs when your body kills red blood cells faster than it can replace them.

Autoimmune conditions or an allergic reaction to certain meds can cause a hemolytic anemia. But you might also inherit it through your genes.

Anemia of inflammation (aka anemia of chronic disease)

Certain conditions interfere with the production of red blood cells and have close links to anemia.

These include:

Vitamin deficiency anemia

Your bod needs vitamin B12 and folate to produce healthy red blood cells.

A diet that doesn’t provide enough of this super-important vitamin (and other key nutrients, the whole gang is essential) can reduce red blood cell production.

Anemia associated with bone marrow disease

These go under the moniker “anemia due to mydelodysplastic syndrome (MDS).” They develop when your bone marrow — the breeding ground for your red blood cells — starts producing fewer red blood cells or ceasing altogether.

Certain conditions like myelofibrosis and leukemia can affect your bone marrow’s ability to produce red blood cells.

These disorders can cause symptoms that range from mild to life threatening.

Anemia due to chronic kidney disease

Anemia is a common symptom of chronic kidney disease (CKD). In fact, about 1 out of 7 folks with kidney disease have anemia, according to a small 2014 study. It’s more common for peeps with severe CKD. But can happen in early stages.

Anemia due to CKD can develop for a few different reasons:

  • CKD reduces your ability to produce erythropoietin (EPO). This is a hormone that tells your bone marrow to make red blood cells.
  • Red blood cells tend to die faster than usual in folks with CKD.
  • People with CKD might have a harder time absorbing the nutrients they need to make red blood cells.

Anemia isn’t a one-size-fits-all kind of condition. Each type can cause unique side effects. Here are the deets.

Aplastic anemiaSickle cell anemia
Hemolytic anemiaIron deficiency anemiaAnemia due to CKD
nosebleeds or bleeding gumschronic infectionsfatiguechest painbody aches
bruisingdelayed growth or pubertydizzinesscoldness in your hands and feetchest pains
dizzinessjoint problemsheart palpitationsdifficulty concentratingconcentration problems
enlarged spleen or liveracute painpale skindizzinessdizziness
fatiguevision issuesjaundicefatiguefainting
fevergallstonesconfusionirregular heartbeatfatigue or weakness
headachesleg ulcersheadachespica (unusual cravings for nonfood items)headaches
frequent infections liver problemsenlarged spleen or liverrestless leg syndromeirregular heartbeat
shortness of breathstroke or silent brain injuryirregular heart rhythms shortness of breathshortness of breath
heart problemsweaknesssleep problems
trouble concentrating
unusually pale skin

Vitamin deficiency anemia causes fewer symptoms than the other main types of anemia, leading to:

  • tiredness
  • weakness
  • breathlessness

Anemia of inflammation also triggers the above effects, but adds:

  • body aches
  • dizziness
  • paler skin than usual
  • an irregular heart rate

And anemia with MDS causes a kind of mashup of the above two:

  • tiredness
  • weakness
  • lightheadedness
  • dizziness
  • irritability
  • heart palpitations
  • headaches
  • paler skin than usual

Call a doc about even the mildest symptoms

PSA: Lots of anemia symptoms can be easy to ignore.

Even if your symptoms are super low-key, tell your doctor. They can help you prove if anemia is to blame.

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There are unique risk factors for each type of anemia. Here’s the lowdown.

Aplastic anemia

Aplastic anemia is most common in kids, young adults, and older adults. Risk factors include:

  • certain medications
  • some viral infections
  • exposure to toxic chemicals
  • ionizing radiation, such as from radiation therapy

Sickle cell anemia

It’s genetic, so the biggest risk factor is if it runs in your immediate family. Both parents have to have sickle cell disease or the sickle cell trait to pass it along to their kid(s).

Sickle cell disease is more common in certain ethnic groups, including:

  • people of African descent
  • people from — or whose ancestors were from — South or Central America
  • folks of Asian, Indian, Middle Eastern, or Mediterranean descent

Hemolytic anemia

These forms of anemia can be hereditary or acquired.

Risks include:

  • infections
  • blood cancers
  • certain medications
  • an overactive spleen
  • a reaction to a blood transfusion
  • autoimmune conditions (e.g. lupus, IBD, or rheumatoid arthritis)

Iron deficiency anemia

This stems from (you guessed it!) an iron deficiency (great work, Batman).

But pregnancy, heavy menstrual flow, or severe blood loss can also increase your risk.

Anemia of inflammation

Risks include:

  • inflammatory conditions
  • chronic kidney disease
  • congestive heart failure
  • autoimmune-related conditions (e.g. rheumatoid arthritis of HIV/AIDS)
  • chronic pulmonary disease
  • hematological malignancies

Cancers that affect bone marrow can also be a factor.

Vitamin deficiency anemia

The main risks are low levels of vitamin B12 or folate (folic acid) either from malnutrition or improper nutrient absorption.

Anemia due to MDS

This might go without saying, but we’ll say it anyway! Having a bone marrow condition increases your risk of developing this type of anemia.

Anemia due to CKD

Folks with CKD who also have diabetes have a higher risk of developing anemia. They also tend to have more severe anemia symptoms than peeps who don’t have diabetes.

Is anemia serious?

Anemia affects more than 3 million people in the United States. But just because it’s common doesn’t mean it’s not dangerous. In some cases, it can even be life threatening.

If left untreated, anemia can lead to serious complications like:

  • heart failure
  • improper immunity
  • chronic weakness

That’s why it’s hella important you talk with your doc if you notice any symptoms or if anemia runs in your family.

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In general, anemia is super treatable. But it also depends on your specific type and how your bod responds to care.

Aplastic anemia

Treatment can include blood transfusions to boost your red blood cell count. Folks with severe aplastic anemia might need a bone marrow transplant if their bone marrow doesn’t produce healthy blood cells.

Sickle cell anemia

Treatment can involve pain relievers, oxygen, or intravenous (IV) fluids. Your doctor might prescribe you antibiotics or give you a blood transfusion.

Your doc might also prescribe or recommend supplements to treat sickle cell anemia for certain people.

According to a research review, these supplements can include:

  • zinc
  • niacin
  • calcium
  • arginine
  • citrulline
  • vitamin A
  • vitamin E
  • L-carnitine
  • α-lipoic acid
  • nicotinamide
  • omega-3 fatty acids

Reminder: Before you go to town in the vitamin aisle, always ask your doctor before adding a new supplement to your diet.

Hemolytic anemia

Management may include treating underlying infections or taking meds (such as dexamethasone) to suppress your immune system.

You may also be asked to stop taking certain meds that are associated with hemolytic anemia. These include:

  • penicillin
  • some antimalarial drugs
  • sulfa medicines
  • acetaminophen

Iron deficiency anemia

Your doc might ask you to take iron supplements or to tweak your diet.

How to get more iron

According to the National Institutes of Health, the recommended daily intake (RDI) of iron is 18 milligrams (mg) for adult women and 8 mg for adult men. Adults aged 51 years and older need 8 mg a day.

Great dietary sources of iron include:

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Anemia of inflammation

Your doc will likely try to reduce the symptoms of the underlying condition triggering the anemia. In more severe cases, they might give you a blood transfusion or prescribe meds to manage fatigue.

You might need to take dietary supplements to boost your nutrient intake.

But if your body doesn’t absorb nutrients as well as it could, your doc might give you a vitamin B12 shot.

Anemia associated with bone marrow disease

Treatments can include chemotherapy, or a bone marrow transplant.

Doctors may prescribe medications that help improve bone marrow function, including:

  • azacitidine (Vidaza)
  • darbepoetin Alfa (Aranesp)
  • cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan)

Anemia due to CKD

Your doc might give you an erythropoiesis-stimulating agent (ESA) to help stimulate red blood cell production.

They’ll also run tests to see if your CKD anemia has developed due to iron deficiency. If that’s the case, you may need to take an iron supplement (either in pill form or through an IV infusion).

The only way to get a legit anemia diagnosis is to talk with your doctor. They’ll ask if it runs in your fam or if you have a history of exposure to toxic chemicals (Twitter doesn’t count).

As for a physical exam, they can suggest some tests to determine a diagnosis. These include:

  • ferritin tests
  • folic acid tests
  • vitamin B12 tests
  • serum iron level tests
  • complete blood count (CBC) tests
  • stool tests (to determine if there’s blood in your poo) 💩

Your doc might also give you an additional test like:

  • an upper and lower GI
  • chest X-rays
  • a barium enema
  • a CT scan of your ab region

Anemia can be super serious, but is treatable in most cases. There are many types, but it’s important for every person with anemia to recognize symptoms early on and seek treatment.

If you’re showing signs of the condition — or if it runs in your family — def talk with your doctor.

They can determine the exact type of anemia you’re dealing with and give you the best treatment options for your unique case.