Anemia refers to a lower than normal number of red blood cells in the blood. The principal function of red blood cells is to carry oxygen from the lungs and distribute it throughout the entire body.

Anemia is treated by the specialists in Lurie Children's Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders. Learn more.

Causes

In general, anemia is caused by one of the following: 
  • An inability of the body to make red blood cells 
  • Premature destruction of the red blood cells 
  • Bleeding, or loss of red blood cells

Blood loss from repeated severe nosebleeds, heavy menstrual periods, a bleeding stomach ulcer or certain intestinal disorders can cause anemia. When there are insufficient amounts of important vitamins and other substances that are crucial for the production of new red cells, anemia may occur.

Inherited defects of enzymes, cell membrane structure, or hemoglobin molecules inside the cell may cause red cells to be more fragile and prone to premature destruction. Problems in the bone marrow where red blood cells are produced can also cause anemia. This can be a mild anemia that may occur in conjunction with a viral illness or a more severe anemia because the function of the marrow has been nearly destroyed, which can be due to hepatitis, toxins or, rarely, leukemia.

Finally, children who have serious chronic illnesses may have anemia due to the condition itself or medication used to treat it.

A common form of anemia in childhood is due to iron deficiency. Iron is an essential component of the molecules inside red blood cells that carry oxygen. Iron is also important for some enzymes systems in the body and for the normal function of certain organs such as the brain.

There are many causes of iron deficiency anemia, depending upon the age of child and whether there are other medical problems. Iron deficiency anemia is most often due to inadequate iron intake in the diet.

Diagnosis & Treatment

Blood tests are required to determine the severity of anemia and to investigate the cause. The simplest tests will include a complete blood count (CBC), reticulocyte count and examination of the blood cells by the hematologist under a microscope. At other times, more detailed studies are needed to evaluate your child for specific forms of anemia.

Your doctor may request help from a hematologist (blood specialist) to determine why your child has anemia and to recommend treatment if indicated.

Symptoms

When a child has a mild anemia, he or she may appear almost normal; however, signs of anemia may include paleness, headache or dizziness, fatigue and, in some instances, jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes). In cases of sudden very severe anemia, a child may become listless, extremely pale and may feel faint.

Treatment

The treatment of anemia in general depends on the cause of the anemia. In some cases, blood transfusions must be given. In general, iron deficiency anemia can be treated successfully with prescription-strength iron by mouth and with changes in diet. Many children with iron deficiency anemia are diagnosed and treated by their pediatrician or family doctor, but for some more challenging cases a hematologist may be helpful. 

Resources

Learn more about a specific type of anemia known as hemolytic anemia.