What’s anemia? What causes it?

Dr. Greene's Answer

Blood is a straw-colored liquid packed with red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets (little clumps that help the blood clot when needed). The red blood cells carry oxygen from the lungs to every part of the body; they also give the blood its characteristic blood-red color. This steady supply of oxygen to the body’s tissues is necessary for health, for growth, and for life itself.

When you don’t have enough red blood cells in your blood, you have anemia. Anemia can make you feel tired, weak, and cranky. It can cause pale skin, headaches, and a poor appetite. Kids with anemia tend to get sick more often.

There are many different types of anemia. They have very different causes and treatments.

The most common reason for a child to be anemic is an inadequate supply of iron. Iron is a mineral that your body needs in order to make red blood cells. Children who lack enough iron will make small, pale, ineffective red blood cells.

In most children, iron deficiency anemia never gets severe enough to cause noticeable symptoms. However, even mild iron deficiency can slow cognitive development. Iron deficiency (even mild enough not to cause anemia) is associated with a decrease in attention span, in alertness, and in learning ability. Memory and school performance are decreased.

Iron-deficient children are also more likely to eat dirt, paint chips, ice, and other mineral-containing items. They may experience shortness of breath with physical activity. Athletic performance suffers.

Children get iron deficiency anemia if they don’t eat enough iron-containing food, if they lose too much iron (through bleeding), or if their need for new red blood cells is increased (as in periods of rapid growth). Thus, iron deficiency anemia is most common in infants and in adolescents (especially adolescent girls).

Most children get a routine blood test between 6 and 18 months of age to look for anemia. The blood test is important because it can identify anemia before there are any symptoms. In addition to routine screening, doctors will often also check for anemia in children who have high risk factors for anemia (i.e. teenage girl with heavy periods) or symptoms of anemia (i.e. shortness of breath with activity).

Medical Review on: July 02, 2010
About the Author
Photo of Alan Greene MD
Dr. Greene is a practicing physician, author, national and international TEDx speaker, and global health advocate. He is a graduate of Princeton University and University of California San Francisco.
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