Definition

Certain long-term medical conditions, such as cancer and infectious and inflammatory diseases, can cause anemia. Anemia is a low level of healthy red blood cells (RBCs). RBCs carry oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. When red blood cells are low, the body does not get enough oxygen.

Hemoglobin
IMAGE
Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

Causes

Anemia has several causes, but some may be unknown. Factors that play into anemia include:

  • Shortened lifespan of red blood cells
  • Reduced production of new red blood cells
  • Reduced secretion of a hormone called erythropoietin, which stimulates red cell production under normal conditions
  • Imbalance or redistribution of iron in the body

Long-term illnesses that can lead to anemia, include:

Risk Factors

Anyone of any age with a chronic inflammatory or infectious disease may be at risk for anemia of chronic disease (ACD), but the elderly are among those at highest risk.

Symptoms

ACD usually develops slowly, producing few or no symptoms. When symptoms do occur, they are usually mild. Symptoms include:

  • Pale complexion, lightheadedness, fatigue, and rapid heartbeat
  • Fever

Diagnosis

You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history, particularly any history of chronic inflammatory or infectious disease or cancer. A physical exam will be done.

Your bodily fluids may be tested. This can be done with:

Treatment

With ACD, if the underlying disease causing it is found and treated, the anemia may improve or clear on its own. Iron supplements and vitamins are generally not effective.

For severe cases of ACD, blood transfusions may be necessary. Another treatment is to give erythropoiesis-stimulating agents (ESAs), which help stimulate growth of new red blood cells. These drugs do have risks that are important to consider before using them. There is some evidence that ESAs may shorten survival in people with cancer.

Prevention

If you have a chronic medical condition, continue prescribed treatment and maintain regular visits with your doctor.

Revision Information

  • Reviewer: EBSCO Medical Review Board Marcin Chwistek, MD
  • Review Date: 09/2017 -
  • Update Date: 09/29/2017 -