Understanding Anaemia

In 2019 the WHO estimated the global anaemia prevalence to be 39.8%.

Anaemia develops when your blood lacks enough healthy red blood cells or haemoglobin.  Haemoglobin is the main part of red blood cells and it binds oxygen.  If you have too few or abnormal red blood cells, or your haemoglobin is abnormal or low, the cells in your body will not get enough oxygen.

Women, infants, young children, the elderly and people with chronic diseases are at increased risk of anaemia.

What do red blood cells do?

  • Your body makes three types of blood cells: red blood cells to carry oxygen throughout your body, white blood cells to fight infection and blood platelets to help your blood clot.
  • Red blood cells contain haemoglobin which is an iron-rich protein that gives blood its red colour.
  • Most blood cells, including red blood cells, are produced regularly in your bone marrow. Bone marrow is a spongy material found within the cavities of many of your large bones.  To produce haemoglobin and red blood cells, your body needs iron, vitamin B-12, folate and other nutrients.

Anaemia can be treated

Anaemia signs and symptoms vary depending on the cause of your anaemia and may include: fatigue, weakness, pale or yellowish skin, irregular heartbeats, shortness of breath, dizziness or light-headedness, chest pain, cold hands and feet and headache.  It is important to note that symptoms worsen as anaemia worsens and that it is easy to confuse some of the symptoms of anaemia with the side effects of a busy lifestyle.

If left untreated anaemia can increase your risk of developing complications such as abnormally fast heartbeats or heart failure.  In pregnancy, anaemia can cause complications before and after birth.  Ensuring that the mother is not anaemic during pregnancy is important for the baby’s growth, the growth of the placenta and to protect the mother from serious effects of blood loss during delivery.  Anaemia during pregnancy can cause an early delivery or low birth weight that can impact on the healthy development of the newborn.

There are many types of anaemia.  All are very different in their causes and treatments.  Anaemia is divided into three groups: anaemia caused by blood loss, anaemia caused by decreased or faulty red blood cell production and anaemia caused by destruction of red blood cells.

These factors place you at increased risk of anaemia

  • A diet that is consistently low in iron, vitamin B-12 and.
  • Having an intestinal disorder that affects the absorption of nutrients in your small intestine — such as Crohn’s disease and celiac disease.
  • In general, pre-menopausal women have a greater risk of iron deficiency anaemia than men and postmenopausal women.
  • Menstruation causes the loss of red blood cells.
  • Pregnant women that don’t take a multivitamin with folic acid.
  • Cancer, kidney failure or another chronic condition that can lead to a shortage of red blood cells.
  • A history of certain infections, blood diseases and autoimmune disorders, alcoholism, exposure to toxic chemicals, and the use of some medications can affect red blood cell production.
  • Slow, chronic blood loss from an ulcer or other source within your body can deplete your body’s store of iron.
  • Family history.
  • Age: People over age 65 are at increased risk of anaemia.

Fun facts, did you know…

  • Human blood is about 40-45% red blood cells.
  • Every second, 2-3 million red blood cells are produced in the bone marrow and released into the circulation. This means 200 billion RBCs are produced every day.
  • One red blood cell can travel the entire circulatory system in 20 seconds.
  • Iron is what makes blood red. Octopuses have blue blood because they have evolved with copper-based blood instead.
  • Each red blood cell contains about 260-280 million haemoglobin molecules.