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What is anaemia?

Anaemia is a lack of red blood cells or haemoglobin. Red blood cells and haemoglobin, the molecule in red blood cells that makes them red, are important because they carry oxygen from the lungs around the body. It’s important to find and treat the cause of the anaemia as well as the anaemia itself.

What are the symptoms of anaemia?

If you have anaemia, you can experience a range of symptoms, including feeling

You may also look pale and have cold feet or hands.

It’s important to see your doctor if you have any of these symptoms.

What causes anaemia?

Anaemia is most commonly caused by iron deficiency, which can develop for several reasons:

  • If you are not eating enough foods that are rich in iron. Iron is important for the production of red blood cells. People who are following vegan and vegetarian diets may not get enough iron from their diet.
  • If you are unable to absorb iron from the foods you eat. Some health conditions affect how much iron you can absorb from your stomach and bowel, such as coeliac disease.
  • If you experience blood loss. Women are at increased risk of anaemia due to menstruation or heavy periods — 3 in 10 women of child-bearing age have anaemia. People with conditions such as Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis or stomach ulcers may also experience anaemia due to bleeding in the stomach or bowel. Regular blood donors are at risk of developing anaemia too.
  • If you have certain inherited or bone marrow diseases, including thalassaemia.

Some chronic diseases such as chronic kidney disease and heart failure can also cause anaemia.

Some women develop anaemia during pregnancy due to their increasing need for iron throughout the pregnancy.

Sometimes anaemia is due to a lack of vitamin B12 — this is known as pernicious anaemia.

How is anaemia diagnosed?

A blood test for iron is usually performed to diagnose anaemia. If you have anaemia, your doctor will talk to you and examine you to work out how severe the anaemia is, and what the cause could be. You might be asked to have more tests, depending on what your doctor has learnt from talking to you and examining you.

How is anaemia treated?

It is important to identify the cause of anaemia to be able to treat it effectively. This is usually done in 2 stages:

  • Stage 1 involves treating the anaemia itself by correcting the iron deficiency.
  • Stage 2 involves finding and treating the underlying cause of the iron deficiency, which should help prevent you getting anaemia again.

How is anaemia prevented?

You can reduce your chances of getting anaemia by:

  • having a healthy diet that includes iron-rich foods
  • seeing your doctor regularly if you have a chronic health condition or if you are feeling unusually tired

You should only take iron supplements if they are recommended by your doctor.

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Last reviewed: July 2020

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