Anemia ; also spelled anaemia and anæmia; from Greek ἀναιμία anaimia, meaning lack of blood) is a decrease in number of red blood cells (RBCs) or less than the normal quantity of hemoglobin in the blood. However, it can include decreased oxygen-binding ability of each hemoglobin molecule due to deformity or lack in numerical development as in some other types of hemoglobin deficiency.
Because hemoglobin (found inside RBCs) normally carries oxygen from the lungs to the tissues, anemia leads to hypoxia (lack of oxygen) in organs. Because all human cells depend on oxygen for survival, varying degrees of anemia can have a wide range of clinical consequences.
Anemia is the most common disorder of the blood. There are several kinds of anemia, produced by a variety of underlying causes. Anemia can be classified in a variety of ways, based on the morphology of RBCs, underlying etiologic mechanisms, and discernible clinical spectra, to mention a few. The three main classes of anemia include excessive blood loss (acutely such as a hemorrhage or chronically through low-volume loss), excessive blood cell destruction (hemolysis) or deficient red blood cell production (ineffective hematopoiesis).
There are two major approaches: the "kinetic" approach which involves evaluating production, destruction and loss, and the "morphologic" approach which groups anemia by red blood cell size. The morphologic approach uses a quickly available and low cost lab test as its starting point (the MCV). On the other hand, focusing early on the question of production may allow the clinician to expose cases more rapidly where multiple causes of anemia coexist.
Anemia is typically diagnosed on a complete blood count. Apart from reporting the number of red blood cells and the hemoglobin level, the automatic counters also measure the size of the red blood cells by flow cytometry, which is an important tool in distinguishing between the causes of anemia. Examination of a stained blood smear using a microscope can also be helpful, and is sometimes a necessity in regions of the world where automated analysis is less accessible.
In modern counters, four parameters (RBC count, hemoglobin concentration, MCV and RDW) are measured, allowing others (hematocrit, MCH and MCHC) to be calculated, and compared to values adjusted for age and sex. Some counters estimate hematocrit from direct measurements.
The "kinetic" approach to anemia yields what many argue is the most clinically relevant classification of anemia. This classification depends on evaluation of several hematological parameters, particularly the blood reticulocyte (precursor of mature RBCs) count. This then yields the classification of defects by decreased RBC production versus increased RBC destruction and/or loss. Clinical signs of loss or destruction include abnormal peripheral blood smear with signs of hemolysis; elevated LDH suggesting cell destruction; or clinical signs of bleeding, such as guiaic-positive stool, radiographic findings, or frank bleeding.
In the morphological approach, anemia is classified by the size of red blood cells; this is either done automatically or on microscopic examination of a peripheral blood smear. The size is reflected in the mean corpuscular volume (MCV). If the cells are smaller than normal (under 80 fl), the anemia is said to be microcytic; if they are normal size (80–100 fl), normocytic; and if they are larger than normal (over 100 fl), the anemia is classified as macrocytic. This scheme quickly exposes some of the most common causes of anemia; for instance, a microcytic anemia is often the result of iron deficiency. In clinical workup, the MCV will be one of the first pieces of information available; so even among clinicians who consider the "kinetic" approach more useful philosophically, morphology will remain an important element of classification and diagnosis.
Iron deficiency from nutritional causes is rare in non-menstruating adults (men and post-menopausal women). The diagnosis of iron deficiency mandates a search for potential sources of loss such as gastrointestinal bleeding from ulcers or colon cancer. Mild to moderate iron deficiency anemia is treated by oral iron supplementation with ferrous sulfate, ferrous fumarate, or ferrous gluconate. When taking iron supplements, it is very common to experience stomach upset and/or darkening of the feces. The stomach upset can be alleviated by taking the iron with food; however, this decreases the amount of iron absorbed. Vitamin C aids in the body's ability to absorb iron, so taking oral iron supplements with orange juice is of benefit.
Vitamin supplements given orally (folic acid) or subcutaneously (vitamin B-12) will replace specific deficiencies.
In anemia of chronic disease, anemia associated with chemotherapy, or anemia associated with renal disease, some clinicians prescribe recombinant erythropoietin, epoetin alfa, to stimulate red cell production.
Doctors attempt to avoid blood transfusion in general, since multiple lines of evidence point to increased adverse patient clinical outcomes with more intensive transfusion strategies. The physiological principle that reduction of oxygen delivery associated with anemia leads to adverse clinical outcomes is balanced by the finding that transfusion does not necessarily mitigate these adverse clinical outcomes.
In severe, acute bleeding, transfusions of donated blood are often lifesaving. Improvements in battlefield casualty survival is attributable, at least in part, to the recent improvements in blood banking and transfusion techniques.
Transfusion of the stable but anemic hospitalized patient has been the subject of numerous clinical trials.
Four randomized controlled clinical trials have been conducted to evaluate aggressive versus conservative transfusion strategies in critically ill patients. All four of these studies failed to find a benefit with more aggressive transfusion strategies.
In addition, at least two retrospective studies have shown increases in adverse clinical outcomes in critically ill patients that underwent more aggressive transfusion strategies.
Treatment of exceptional blood loss (anemia) is recognized as an indication for hyperbaric oxygen (HBO) by the Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society. The use of HBO is indicated when oxygen delivery to tissue is not sufficient in patients who cannot be transfused for medical or religious reasons. HBO may be used for medical reasons when threat of blood product incompatibility or concern for transmissible disease are factors. The beliefs of some religions (ex: Jehovah's Witnesses) may require they use the superior HBO method.