One of the most common causes of anaemia is blood loss due to monthly periods in women, or bleeding in the stomach or intestines due to conditions such as stomach ulcers, which are open sores that develop on the lining of the stomach, and bowel cancer. Blood loss can result in deficiencies in vitamins and minerals needed to make haemoglobin including iron, vitamin B12 and folate (also known as vitamin B9) and result in anaemia.
Iron deficiency anaemia is the most common type. In the UK, iron levels are especially low among girls aged 11-18 and women aged 19-64, as shown by The National Diet and Nutrition Survey which revealed that 46 per cent of girls and almost one in four women have low iron intakes.
A lack of B12 or folate causes the body to produce abnormally large red blood cells that can’t function properly. The most common cause of B12 deficiency is pernicious anaemia, an autoimmune condition, where antibodies attack the lining of the gut and stop the production of a chemical called intrinsic factor, so B12 can’t be absorbed.
It’s also possible you are not getting enough B12 from your diet, particularly if you are vegan. Kidney disease and cancer can also make it hard for your body to produce enough red blood cells.
Sickle cell disease, where people have unusually shaped red blood cells, and thalassemia, a condition where either no or too little haemoglobin is produced, can cause your body to destroy too many red blood cells.
The most common symptoms of anaemia include fatigue (feeling tired or weak), becoming easily breathless, dizziness and pale skin. Less common symptoms are headaches, hair loss, a sore or abnormally smooth tongue and ringing in the ears (tinnitus).
These symptoms can occur because your heart has to work harder to pump oxygen-rich blood through your body. A rapid or irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia) is another symptom but some people with mild anaemia have no symptoms at all. Over time, this condition can damage your heart and lead to heart failure.
Anaemia is easily diagnosed by your doctor, who’ll discuss your symptoms with you. A blood test will be taken and sent to the laboratory, where the amount of haemoglobin in your blood and the number of red blood cells per millilitre (ml) will be measured.
Who gets anaemia?
Men and women of all ages and races can get anaemia, however, you are more at risk of iron deficiency anaemia if you’re a woman of childbearing age due to the blood loss from menstruation, and the increased blood supply demands during pregnancy.
Pernicious anaemia is the most common cause of vitamin B12 deficiency in the UK and more common amongst women aged around 60, or who have a family history of the disease or suffer from Addison’s disease, an autoimmune condition.
Treatments vary according to the underlying cause, but usually involve taking a supplement (iron, folate or vitamin B12) and/or making dietary changes.
Vitamin B12 may have to be given by injection to begin with, this is because with pernicious anaemia your immune system attacks healthy cells lining the gut, preventing your body from absorbing vitamin B12 via the stomach. Other treatments may include blood transfusions, chemotherapy and steroids.