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When Your Child Has Anemia

Small boy sitting on mother's lap. Mother is holding a toy bear. Healthcare provider is preparing to take blood sample from boy's arm.

Anemia occurs when there are not enough healthy red blood cells (RBCs) in the body. RBCs are important because they contain hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is a protein that allows RBCs to carry oxygen throughout the body. Mild anemia can cause your child to feel very tired or have less energy than normal. Severe anemia can cause many health problems. It can also affect how your child grows. Talk to your child’s healthcare provider about treatment options.

What Causes Anemia?

Anemia has many causes including:

  • Not enough RBCs being made

  • Too many RBCs being destroyed (hemolysis)

  • Blood loss (from things like injury or surgery or menstrual bleeding)

  • Inherited blood disorders

What Are the Symptoms of Anemia?

Some children have no symptoms at all. If symptoms are present, they may include:

  • Pale skin

  • Crankiness

  • Weakness

  • Fatigue

  • Shortness of breath

  • Trouble doing normal amounts of physical activity (exercise intolerance)

  • Rapid heartbeat

  • Dizziness or fainting

  • Jaundice (yellowing of the eyes, skin, or mouth; tea-colored urine)

How Is Anemia Diagnosed?

Your child’s healthcare provider will examine your child. He or she will also ask about your child’s symptoms, diet, and health history. Tests will be done. Most of the tests are performed by taking a blood sample from a vein in the arm or from a finger or heel. Tests may include:

  • A complete blood cell count (CBC) to measure the amounts of different types of cells in the blood. When diagnosing anemia, gathering information about the RBCs is particularly important.

  • A blood smear to check the size and shape of blood cells. A drop of blood is looked at with a microscope. A stain is added to make parts of the blood easier to see.

  • Hemoglobin electrophoresis to check for the amounts and types of hemoglobin in the blood.

  • Iron studies to measure the amount of iron in the blood. Iron is needed to make hemoglobin, so too little iron can lead to anemia.

  • A reticulocyte count to measure the amount of new RBCs being made by the bone marrow.

How Is Anemia Treated?

Treatment for your child’s anemia depends on the type, cause, and severity of symptoms. Treatment can include:

  • Diet changes. Certain nutrients can affect the RBCs. For instance, iron is needed to help build RBCs. If lack of iron is the cause of your child’s anemia, you’ll be told to increase the amount in your child’s diet. Other nutrients can be involved with anemia as well, including low amounts of folate and vitamin B12.

  • Medications. These are prescribed to treat an underlying infection or condition that is causing your child’s anemia.

  • Blood transfusions. These are needed if the level of hemoglobin or number of RBCs is low enough to cause physical symptoms.

  • Surgery to remove the spleen (splenectomy). The spleen stores extra blood and helps remove old RBCs from the body. Though done less often, removing the spleen is a treatment for certain types of anemia.

  • Bone marrow transplant. In rare cases, this treatment is done if the body can’t make enough healthy blood cells. It replaces diseased bone marrow cells with healthy cells from a matched donor.

What Are the Long-term Concerns?

  • Most children recover from anemia without any long-term effects.

  • For some children, anemia may be a lifelong condition. In mild to moderate cases, regular visits with the healthcare provider are needed for routine tests and help in managing symptoms.

  • In severe cases, children will need ongoing treatment and supportive care. Work closely with your child’s healthcare provider to learn all you can about your child’s condition and how to help your child.

 

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