Anemia is a health condition characterized by low hemoglobin levels, or a low red blood cell count, in a patient’s blood. What red blood cell counts are considered “low” by experts in the medical field when below 13.5 grams per 100 milliliters of blood in males and 12.0 grams per 100 milliliters of blood in females. Your complete blood cell count can be determined by a doctor with a simple lab test during routine physical exams. For quicker results, your doctor might just prick your finger and perform a hemoglobin test without sending off a blood sample to a lab. Red blood cells are created in a patient’s bone marrow. In an anemic patient, some underlying condition either prevents these red blood cells from being produced at a normal or healthy rate, or causes blood in the patient’s body to be destroyed or lost.
Iron Deficiency Anemia
An inadequate level of iron in the blood is another major cause of anemia. Iron is an important component of hemoglobin, so not having enough can cause the red blood cells to either be improperly produced or to malfunction. In many cases, conditions like ulcers—open sores that cause acute or chronic internal bleeding—are a major source of iron deficiency in patients. It is very common that patients do not realize that they are losing iron as a result of underlying conditions, and so they get diagnosed with iron deficiency anemia. Ulcers can also be a side effect of ordinary over-the-counter medications like ibuprofen or aspirin. Another serious cause of iron deficiency anemia is colon polyps or colon cancer, so scheduling a screening test such as colonoscopy or upper endoscopy (EGD) after your blood work shows low iron levels might result in a proper diagnosis of more serious GI diseases, such as colon cancer or kidney failure.
Furthermore, more women than men are likely to have iron deficiency anemia because they lose blood every month during their menstrual periods. However, a menstrual cycle is a natural process and not usually a cause for concern. Bleeding during a woman’s menstrual cycle lasts for merely 3 to 7 days every month and results in a relatively small amount of blood loss. In these cases, little to no symptoms are experienced—although women might notice that they are unable to donate blood during this time. Infants and vegetarians, who usually do not eat foods with sufficient levels of iron, may also have iron deficiency anemia. It is also a hereditary disease that can be passed down through family members.
Symptoms of Anemia
Many anemic patients do not report any symptoms. If the condition lasts for a long time, the body can adjust to the imbalance, so that the symptoms are not noticeable. In more severe cases, however, a low red blood cell count can make an individual experience fatigue, paleness, shortness of breath and heart palpitations (quickened heart beats). Other symptoms include a general feeling of illness and hair loss. In general, the symptoms of anemia are relatively minor unless a patient becomes anemic suddenly (a condition called acute anemia).
Colonoscopy for Anemia Treatment
Since anemia can result from a variety of causes, from inflammation in the colon to colon cancer, there are many optional screening tests that can be administered in attempt to discover the underlying condition. A colonoscopy procedure will determine whether a patient has pouches (diverticulum) or polyps that are causing bleeding or inflammation in the large intestine. Gastrointestinal bleeding, or ulcers—often signaled by the detection of blood in the stool—is another example of a condition that may cause significant blood loss in a patient diagnosed with anemia. Talk to a medical expert today if you feel that a more serious disease is the source of your anemia. The earlier you can determine underlying causes, the better your chances are of receiving effective treatment.
Reviewed 12/12/2011 by David M. Nolan, M.D.
Diplomate of the American Board of Internal Medicine, 2011
Currently a Fellow of Gastroenterology, at UCI 2011-2014