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Dizziness. Shortness of breath. Weakness. These are just a few of the most common anemia symptoms, but these experiences are just one piece of the puzzle for many people suffering from anemia. That’s because there are many different types of anemia, and not all of them are created equal. Depending on the cause, the various forms of anemia can come with different symptoms and complications.
While anemia can be mild for some people, others experience severe symptoms. It’s important to see a healthcare provider if you have any symptoms of anemia.
Read on to learn more about common symptoms for each type of anemia.
Symptoms of anemia
Anemia occurs when there’s a shortage of healthy red blood cells to transport oxygen throughout the body. While there are several types of anemia, a shortage of healthy red blood cells generally causes the same baseline symptoms (Baldwin, 2020; Turner, 2021):
- Shortness of breath
- Heart complications, such as arrhythmias (irregular heartbeat)
But depending on the specific type of anemia a person has, symptoms, severity, and complications can vary.
Sickle cell anemia symptoms
One of the most common genetic diseases in the United States, sickle cell anemia, causes red blood cells to have a sickle or crescent-like shape instead of being round and flexible (Sedrak, 2021). Sickle cell disease involves a mutation of hemoglobin—an iron-containing protein found in red blood cells.
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Besides common symptoms of anemia such as shortness of breath, dizziness, and fatigue, the condition also comes with other, more severe symptoms. The abnormal shape of the red blood cells can cause them to get trapped in organs or clog blood vessels (Ware, 2017). As a result, sickle cell anemia symptoms may include:
- Pain due to blocked blood flow through vessels in the chest, joints, and abdomen
- Swelling in hands and feet
- Joint pain similar to arthritis
- Frequent infections
- Delayed growth or puberty
- Vision problems
Sickle cell anemia can also cause chronic disease and complications, including (Kato, 2018):
- Acute chest syndrome (a life-threatening complication that includes chest pain, respiratory problems, and fever)
- Kidney disease
- Organ damage
- Osteonecrosis (death of bone tissue) (Adesina, 2019)
Iron-deficiency anemia symptoms
Iron deficiency anemia is a common cause of anemia, accounting for the majority of anemia cases in the world (Auerbach, 2016). It occurs when the body doesn’t have enough iron to make hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen throughout the body.
Common symptoms of low iron levels include:
- Shortness of breath
- Restless leg syndrome (Auerbach, 2016)
- Pica (craving or chewing non-food substances) (Auerbach, 2016)
Pernicious anemia symptoms
The body needs vitamin B12 to create healthy red blood cells. Pernicious anemia happens due to a vitamin B12 deficiency, usually when the intestines can’t properly absorb B12. Pernicious anemia can, of course, result in typical anemia symptoms. But because it involves the gastrointestinal tract, it can cause other health problems, too. These commonly include (Rodriguez, 2021):
- GI problems, such as diarrhea or constipation
- Nausea and vomiting
- Lack of appetite
- Pale skin
- Swollen tongue
- Bleeding gums
In severe or untreated cases, pernicious anemia can co-occur with neurological problems like pain from nerve damage, commonly associated with vitamin B12 deficiency (Rodriguez, 2021).
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Aplastic anemia symptoms
Aplastic anemia is a rare and life-threatening form of bone marrow failure (Wang, 2019).
It occurs when a person’s bone marrow doesn’t produce enough red blood cells. This lack of cell production usually occurs due to an infection or autoimmune disease, in which the immune system attacks its own organs or tissues. Common symptoms of aplastic anemia include:
- Frequent infections
- Bleeding gums
- Unexplained bruising
- Skin rashes
- Blood in stool
- Oral thrush (white patches in the mouth)
- Enlarged liver or spleen
Some people with aplastic anemia may later develop other medical conditions such as leukemia, a type of blood and bone marrow cancer that affects white blood cells (Čermák, 2018).
Hemolytic anemia symptoms
Hemolytic anemia happens when a person’s red blood cells are destroyed, and your body can’t keep up making enough new ones (Phillips, 2018). It commonly occurs as a result of autoimmune diseases. Common symptoms of hemolytic anemia include (Phillips, 2018):
- Jaundice (yellowing skin and eyes)
- Hematuria (blood in urine)
- Difficulty breathing
- Hypotension (high blood pressure)
- Enlargement of the spleen (Haley, 2016)
Macrocytic anemia symptoms
Macrocytic anemia occurs when the body creates abnormally large blood cells that don’t contain enough hemoglobin. A cause of macrocytic anemia is a deficiency of vitamin B12 or folate, which is known as megaloblastic anemia. Non-megaloblastic macrocytic anemia can occur due to diseases like liver dysfunction, alcoholism, or hypothyroidism (Nagao, 2017).
Macrocytic anemia usually involves typical anemia symptoms. When it’s associated with a B12 deficiency, it may also include:
- Weakness, pain, or tingling in the hands or feet
- Difficulty or instability walking
- Memory loss
If someone’s macrocytic anemia stems from another disease, they’ll also have symptoms of that condition along with anemia symptoms.
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Severe anemia symptoms
Many types of anemia are manageable with treatment. But in some cases, people can develop severe anemia, which can be life-threatening. Severe anemia has the same symptoms as moderate forms of anemia, only worse. The symptoms of severe anemia generally include (Turner, 2021):
- Syncope (temporary loss of consciousness due to a drop in blood pressure)
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
- Reduced exercise tolerance
- Restless leg syndrome
- Esophageal webs (thin membranes that grow across the inside the esophagus)
- Arrhythmias (abnormal heartbeat)
- Impaired neurological or mental development (more common in kids)
If severe anemia is left untreated, it can also result in heart failure.
Anemia symptoms in women and during pregnancy
Anemia is more common in women of reproductive age and pregnant women (Turner, 2021). For example, heavy menstrual bleeding can cause iron deficiency anemia symptoms (Mirza, 2018).
Anemia of pregnancy affects more than 5% of women in developed countries and more than 80% in developing countries. Low hemoglobin levels during pregnancy usually occur due to increased blood volume and, as a result, a lower concentration of iron. Anemia in pregnancy has been associated with complications like (Sun, 2017):
- Low birth weight
- Adverse pregnancy outcomes
It can also cause adverse outcomes for women. If someone is anemic during pregnancy, blood loss from birth can cause severe, life-threatening anemia (Breymann, 2015).
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Anemia symptoms in men
While anemia is more common in women of reproductive age, men can experience it, too. While men with anemia experience the same symptoms, they may have a higher risk of other diseases. For example, one study suggests anemia in middle-aged men may be linked to an increased risk of Parkinson’s disease later in life (Rozani, 2019).
When to see a doctor
If you have any symptoms of anemia, schedule an appointment with your healthcare provider. After some basic blood tests, your provider can help you figure out the root cause and best treatment. Simple cases of anemia can respond to iron supplements and iron-rich foods, while more severe cases may require serious interventions, like blood transfusions.
If you’re suffering from severe anemia symptoms, seek emergency medical care right away.
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Felix Gussone is a physician, health journalist and a Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.