Although many parts of the body help make red blood cells, most of the work is done in the bone marrow. Bone marrow is the soft tissue in the center of bones that helps form all blood cells.
Most often, healthy red blood cells last between 90 and 120 days. Parts of your body then remove old blood cells. A hormone called erythropoietin (epo) made in your kidneys signals your bone marrow to make more red blood cells.
Hemoglobin is the oxygen-carrying protein inside red blood cells. It gives red blood cells their red color. People with anemia do not have enough hemoglobin.
The body needs certain vitamins, minerals, and nutrients to make enough red blood cells. Iron, vitamin B12, and folic acid are three of the most important ones. The body may not have enough of these nutrients because:
Changes in the lining of the stomach or intestines affect how well nutrients are absorbed (for example, celiac disease)
Slow blood loss (for example, from heavy menstrual periods or stomach ulcers)
Surgery that removes part of the stomach or intestines
Other tests may be done to find medical problems that can cause anemia.
Treatment should be directed at the cause of the anemia, and may include:
Corticosteroids or other medicines that suppress the immune system
Erythropoietin, a medicine that helps your bone marrow make more blood cells
Supplements of iron, vitamin B12, folic acid, or other vitamins and minerals
Severe anemia can cause low oxygen levels in vital organs such as the heart, and can lead to a heart attack.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your health care provider if you have any symptoms of anemia, or any unusual bleeding.
Marks PW. Approach to anemia in the adult and child. In: Hoffman R, Benz EJ Jr, Silberstein LE, et al., eds. Hematology: Basic Principles and Practice. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2012:chap 32.
Todd Gersten, MD, Hematology/Oncology, Florida Cancer Specialists & Research Institute, Wellington, FL. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.