The word anaemia is derived from ancient Greek and literally means a 'lack of blood'. Technically it describes a situation where the body does not have enough red blood cells, and since red blood cells carry oxygen around the body, this impacts the body's ability to get the oxygen it needs.

Although many things can cause anaemia, generally these fall into three groups...

1) Blood loss

This can occur where there had been injury or trauma, but also where a woman has heavy menstrual periods or where there is internal bleeding, such as from an ulcer or from the bowel.

2) Problems with red blood cell production

This can be due to a deficiency in the diet or the body's inability to extract nutrients from food (eg Coeliac disease). This may lead to a lack of iron which the body needs in order to produce red blood cells. Issues with red blood cell production may also be due to illness affecting the bone marrow.

3) Red blood cells are being destroyed

Some drugs and medical treatments can adversely affect red blood cells, as can some autoimmune diseases or hereditary conditions.

Different types of anaemia

1) Iron deficiency anaemia

Also called 'low iron anaemia'. This describes anaemia caused by a lack of iron in the diet or the inability of the body to absorb that iron.

2) Autoimmune hemolytic anaemia

As the name implies, autoimmune hemolytic anaemia occurs where the immune systems attacks healthy red blood cells. As described above, this can be caused by some diseases, such as some cancers, and some types of infections, like pneumonia. Some autoimmune diseases, such as lupus, can cause autoimmune hemolytic anaemia, as well as some medical treatments.

3) Pernicious anaemia

Pernicious anaemia is where the body is unable to absorb vitamin B12 from the diet, due to the lack of a protein called 'intrinsic factor' in the stomach which enables this process, and vitamin B12 is needed to make blood cells and maintaining brain and nerve function.

4) Aplastic anaemia

Aplastic anaemia describes the type of anaemia caused by damage to the bone marrow. This can be caused by some medicines and chemicals, some viruses and problems with the immune system.

5) Anaemia of chronic disease

This is a form of anaemia brought on by a long term illness or condition.

What are the symptoms of anaemia?

Anaemia can be present without any symptoms, however the following symptoms may indicate anaemia.

  • Pale skin
  • Severe fatigue/weakness (especially when exercising)
  • Abnormally fast heartbeat
  • Breathing difficulty
  • Headaches
  • Muscle pains

The following symptoms may indicate problems with white blood cells or platelets (the other two types of blood cell)...

  • Bruising or bleeding more often
  • More susceptible to infections

Who is at risk of anaemia?

  • Those at greater risk of anaemia include:
  • Women who have heavy periods
  • Women who are pregnant/breastfeeding
  • Vegetarians
  • Sufferers of chronic diseases including cancer and stomach ulcers
  • People following specific diets

How is anaemia diagnosed?

Diagnosis of anaemia is via a blood test, most commonly a 'FBC' or full blood count. Other tests for example a gastroscopy or colonoscopy or bone marrow biopsy may be required to identify specific types of anaemia and what is the underlying cause of the anaemia.

How is anaemia treated?

Depending on the type of anaemia, your doctor may recommend dietary iron supplements or iron injections or other intravenous treatment. Where anaemia is caused by a malfunctioning immune system, you may be prescribed drugs to make the immune system less active. Where anaemia is due to lack of vitamin B12, this will need to be replaced with a vitamin B12 supplement.