The word Anemia derives from an ancient Greek word anaimia meaning “lack of blood.”
Anemia, like a fever, is not a diagnosis but a presentation of an underlying disease. Multiple diseases can present as anemia due to various mechanisms.
Anemia affects a significant number of people worldwide (more so in the developing world) resulting in a considerable increase in the cost of medical care.
Anemia can be defined as a reduction in hemoglobin (less than 13.5 g/dL in men; less than 12.0 g/dL in women) or hematocrit (less than 41.0% in men; less than 36.0% in women) or red blood cell (RBC) count. The terms hemoglobin and hematocrit are more commonly used than RBC count in day-to-day clinical practice. There are different lower limits of normal range based on ethnicity, gender, and age.
Anemia causes decreased oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood leading to tissue hypoxia.
Grading of anemia according to the National Cancer Institute is as follows:
Anemia classified into acute anemia and chronic anemia. Acute anemia is predominantly due to acute blood loss or acute hemolysis. Chronic anemia is more common and is secondary to multiple causes.
Etiology of chronic anemia based on mean corpuscular volume (MCV is the average size of RBC).
Microcytic Anemia (MCV less than 80 femtoliters [fL])
Macrocytic Anemia (MCV greater than 100 fL)
Normocytic Anemia (MCV 80 to 100 fL)
Some conditions can present in more than 1 classification. For example, early iron deficiency can be normocytic. Anemia of chronic disease is mostly normocytic but can be microcytic too. Hemolytic anemia can cause either macrocytic or normocytic anemia.
Iron deficiency anemia is the most common type of anemia, affecting approximately 8% to 9% of the world’s population.
Anemia is more prevalent in:
RBC is produced in bone marrow with the help of nutrients (iron, B12, folic acid), cytokines, erythroid-specific GF and EPO (erythropoietin, produced by kidneys). Once RBCs are released into the blood, they have a lifespan of about 110 to 120 days. Approximately 1% of RBCs are removed every day from the circulation. Under normal conditions, there is a balance between the number RBC released into circulation by bone marrow to the number removed from circulation. Imbalance of production and release by bone marrow to loss of RBC leads to anemia as below.
Decreased Red Blood Cell Production
Increased Red Blood Cell Destruction (Hemolytic Anemia)
Inherited hemolytic anemia
Acquired hemolytic anemia
Some conditions can cause anemia by over one mechanism (2 or even all the 3 mechanisms).
Anemia of chronic disease is a common form of anemia seen in hospitalized patients caused by long-standing diseases, infections, inflammations, and malignancies. These chronic conditions cause increased production of hepcidin by the liver. Hepcidin binds to its receptor ferroportin and decreases intestinal iron absorption and decreases the release of iron from liver and macrophages leading to decreased availability of iron for erythropoiesis. Other mechanisms that contribute to anemia are by inflammatory cytokines that increase red cell destruction, suppress proliferation of erythroid precursors and by inhibiting release of erythropoietin from kidneys.
CKD is one of the common causes of anemia of chronic disease. The incidence of anemia increases with progression of CKD, especially from stage III to stage IV and stage V. Erythropoietin is an important hormone needed for erythropoiesis. Anemia causes tissue hypoxia which, in turn, stimulates erythropoietin production by kidneys. Kidneys produce about 90% of the total erythropoietin, and as CKD progress, its response to hypoxia decreases causing low erythropoietin levels leading to anemia. CKD can also cause anemia from hemolysis.
Symptoms and signs of chronic anemia are mostly due to decreased tissue oxygenation from the reduction of the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood. Symptoms are worse when anemia is severe, with a rapid decrease in hemoglobin/HCT and with increased oxygen demands states like exercise.
Common presenting symptoms include:
A detailed history should include medical history, home medications, alcohol use, and family history. Ethnicity and country of origin are also helpful.
Important examination findings include:
Differentiation of Microcytic Anemias Based on Iron Studies
Peripheral smear, hemoglobin electrophoresis, and bone marrow examination if needed. Further testing would include esophagogastroduodenoscopy (EGD) and colonoscopy if gastrointestinal (GI) bleeding is suspected and imaging studies if malignancy suspected.
Chronic anemia is managed predominantly in outpatient settings. They need hospitalization if:
If hemoglobin is less than 7 g/dL or if a patent is symptomatic, transfusion of packed red blood cells (PRBC) is indicated.
Transfusions should be done with caution in patients with volume overload status like end-stage renal disease (on hemodialysis) and congestive heart failure (CHF).
Other treatments include treating underlying conditions as below.
Prognosis of anemia varies based on the cause of anemia. Other factors contributing to the prognosis include:
Elderly patients have a poor prognosis due to their advanced age, malnutrition, duration, and multiple comorbidities they tend to have as they age. Patients in the developing world also have a poor prognosis due to malnutrition and lack of access to or delayed medical care.
Hemoglobin less than 6.5 is life-threatening and can cause death.
Untreated anemia can be life-threatening and can even cause death.
Anemia results in decreased oxygen carrying capacity of the blood. In the short term, a body can compensate with an increase in heart rate and respiratory rate. If left untreated, anemia can cause multi-organ failure. This can include high output heart failure, angina, arrhythmias, cognitive impairment, and renal failure, among others.
In pregnant women, untreated anemia can cause premature birth and low birth weight.
Anemia is a condition with decreased oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood. Anemia is very common and caused by different conditions ranging from simple nutritional deficiencies (iron, vitamin B12, and folic acid) to blood loss to other complicated causes.
Anemia is a common medical condition and easily diagnosed with a simple blood work CBC. Treatment can be simple like nutritional supplements (iron, vitamin B12, and folic acid) to blood transfusion to treating complex underlying conditions.
It is very important to follow up with the doctor and sometimes with a specialist to treat anemia because untreated anemia can be life-threatening and may even cause death.
Chronic anemia is a very common condition seen in day-to-day clinical practice and managed in outpatient settings. Anemia management can range from simple to complex based on the underlying condition causing it. Most of the time patient's primary care physician needs help with a specialist based on underlying condition either a gastroenterologist or a hematologist or a nephrologist or a gynecologist. It is very important to have good interprofessional communication and care coordination for the management of anemia appropriately and promptly. This would help both in correcting anemia and treating underlying conditions.