What causes life-threatening anemia?

Anemia is a condition which develops when there is a deficiency of red blood cells or hemoglobin, to carry oxygen throughout your body.

In the general population, it is the most common blood disorder. Its symptoms can include chest pains, headaches, and pale skin. Currently, it affects more than 3 million Americans and an estimated 1.62 billion people, globally.

Anemia can be long term (chronic) or temporary. In most of the cases, it is mild, but anemia can also be life-threatening. Anemia can happen due to the following reasons;

  • Your body makes insufficient red blood cells.
  • Bleeding causes the loss of red blood cells more quickly than they can be replaced.
  • The body destroys its own red blood cells.

Red blood cells carry oxygen throughout the body. In case you don’t have enough circulating red blood cells, your organs don’t get adequate oxygen and can’t function properly. Therefore, this condition can have very severe consequences.

You may have symptoms specific to the disorder underlying anemia. Common symptoms of anemia comprise;

  • fatigue
  • cold hands and feet
  • dizziness and headache
  • lightheadedness
  • irregular heartbeat
  • chest pain
  • pale or yellowish skin
  • shortness of breath
  • weakness
  • whooshing sound or pounding in your ears

Following are a few types of anemia which can possibly be life-threatening;

Aplastic anemia

The condition when your bone marrow becomes damaged due to which your body stops producing new blood cells is referred to as aplastic anemia. Therefore, this type can be abrupt or get worse over time. Its common causes include;

  • cancer treatment
  • exposure to toxic chemicals
  • pregnancy
  • autoimmune disorders
  • viral infections

Sometimes, its cause can be unknown, which is stated as idiopathic aplastic anemia.

Paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria

It is a rare, life-threatening disease which causes blood clots. Moreover, it also destroys blood cells and impairs bone marrow function.

Paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria is a genetic disorder which is usually diagnosed in people who are in their 30s or 40s. It is also related to aplastic anemia. Often, it starts as aplastic anemia or arises after treatment.

Myelodysplastic Syndromes

Myelodysplastic syndromes are a group of conditions that cause the blood-making cells in your bone marrow to become abnormal. Your bone marrow then doesn’t make enough cells, and the cells it does make are generally defective. Moreover, these cells die earlier and are more likely to be destroyed by your immune system.

Myelodysplastic syndromes are considered a type of cancer. They may turn into acute myeloid leukemia, a type of blood cancer.

Hemolytic anemia

Hemolytic anemia occurs when your red blood cells are destroyed faster than your body can make them. It can be temporary or chronic. Moreover, hemolytic anemia can also be inherited. Hence, its probable causes include;

  • infection
  • certain medications, such as penicillin
  • blood cancers
  • autoimmune disorders
  • an overactive spleen
  • some tumors
  • severe reaction to a blood transfusion

Sickle cell anemia

It is an inherited type of anemia which is more common in people of African descent. It not only causes your red blood cells to become sickle-shaped but also rigid and sticky.

This deformation causes them to get stuck in blood vessels. Thus, blocking blood flow throughout your body. This disease causes very painful episodes, frequent infections, and swelling.

Severe thalassemia

It is an inherited disorder in which your body produces insufficient hemoglobin. This is a protein which is a part of red blood cells. Without this, your red blood cells don’t function accurately and die sooner than healthy cells. Furthermore, it can be mild or severe and becomes severe if you inherit two copies of the gene which causes it.

Malarial anemia

It is the main symptom of severe malaria. There are many factors which donate to its development, counting;

  • nutritional deficiencies
  • bone marrow problems
  • the malaria parasite entering red blood cells

Fanconi anemia

Fanconi anemia is a genetic disorder which can also cause an increased risk of leukemia, as well as neck, skin, head, reproductive, and gastrointestinal cancers.

Also, it impairs your bone marrow and causes you to have a lower than normal amount of blood cells. Fanconi anemia often also causes physical aberrations, like malformed forearms or thumbs, skeletal and gastrointestinal abnormalities, infertility, a malformed or missing kidney, and vision and hearing problems.

Causes of life-threatening anemia

Anemia happens due to different reasons like when your body doesn’t make enough blood cells, destroys your red blood cells, or the red blood cells it does make are deformed. There are different causes of these conditions which include;


These are conditions which cause inherited anemia. It means they are passed down through one or both parents through your genes.

  • sickle cell
  • thalassemia
  • some hemolytic anemias
  • Fanconi anemia
  • paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria


Severe bleeding can also cause short-term anemia. For instance, it might happen after any traumatic injury where you lose a lot of blood.


Cancers of the lymphatic system, blood, and bone marrow can also cause anemia. Therefore, its examples comprise;

  • aplastic anemia
  • some hemolytic anemias
  • myelodysplastic syndromes


Acquired diseases, such as malaria, can cause anemia. There are many other infections which can cause aplastic or hemolytic anemia. Autoimmune diseases are also a possible cause of anemia. This is because they may cause your body to attack red blood cells.

Diagnosis of anemia

After taking your family and medical history, your doctor will do a physical exam to look for symptoms of anemia. Then, he will draw blood for some tests. The most common are;

  • complete blood count to count the number of red blood cells and the amount of hemoglobin in blood
  • tests to look at the shape and size of your red blood cells

After the diagnoses of anemia, your doctor may do more tests to find the underlying cause of anemia. For instance, they might do a bone marrow test to check how well your body makes cells, look for internal bleeding, or test for tumors.

Treatment for serious anemia

Treating severe anemia requires more than just diet and lifestyle changes, though eating a healthy diet with iron can help keep you fit. Sometimes, treating anemia also requires treating the underlying cause. Examples comprise;

  • chemotherapy for myelodysplastic syndrome
  • eculizumab (Soliris) for paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria. It keeps your body from destroying your own red blood cells
  • immunosuppressants for some types of aplastic and hemolytic anemias

In all these types of anemia, blood transfusions can replace your lost or defective red blood cells and help to reduce symptoms. But, it usually does not address the original cause.

A bone marrow transplant (stem cell transplant), is a good option if you cannot make healthy red blood cells. In this technique, your bone marrow is replaced with donor marrow which can make healthy cells. Moreover, this is the only cure for some type of anemia, like paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria.

Areeba Hussain

Areeba is an independent medical and healthcare writer. For the last three years, she is writing for Tophealthjournal. Her prime areas of interest are diseases, medicine, treatments, and alternative therapies. Twitter @Areeba94789300

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