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What Is Aplastic Anemia?

When you have the rare but treatable disorder known as aplastic anemia, your marrow -- the spongy substance inside your bones -- stops making new blood cells. Sometimes it stops making just one type, but more often you become low on all three: red and white cells, and platelets. 

It can develop slowly or come on suddenly. If your blood count gets low enough, it can be life-threatening.

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Who Gets It?

Anyone can get aplastic anemia, but it's more likely to happen to people in their late teens and early 20s, and the elderly. Males and females have about an equal chance of getting it. It is more common in developing countries.

There are two different types:

  • acquired aplastic anemia
  • inherited aplastic anemia

Doctors will check to determine which you have.

Inherited aplastic anemia is causes by gene defects, and is most common in children and young adults. If you have this type, there is a higher chance of developing leukemia and other cancers, so see a specialist regularly.

Acquired aplastic anemia is more common in adults. Researchers believe something triggers problems in the immune system. The possibilities include:

  • viruses like HIV or Epstein-Barr
  • certain medications
  • toxic chemicals
  • radiation or chemotherapy treatment for cancer 

 

What Are the Symptoms?

Each type of blood cell has a different role:

  • Red cells carry oxygen around the body.
  • White cells fight infections.
  • Platelets prevent bleeding.

Your symptoms depend on what type of blood cells you're low on, but you may be low on all three. These are common symptoms for each:

Low red cell count:

  • tiredness
  • shortness of breath
  • dizziness
  • pale skin
  • headaches
  • chest pain
  • irregular heartbeat

Low white cell count:

  • infections
  • fever

Low platelet count:

  • easy bruising and bleeding
  • nosebleeds

If you have some of these symptoms, your doctor may do a test called a complete blood count.  She may also take a biopsy of your bone marrow to check you for this disorder.

How Is It Treated?

If your doctor can identify the cause of your aplastic anemia and get rid of that trigger, the condition may go away. But doctors can rarely pinpoint the exact cause.

If your case isn’t severe, you may not need treatment unless or until your blood count drops below a certain level. If it does, your doctor may prescribe hormones or drugs to help your bone marrow make more blood cells. She may also suggest antibiotics and anti-fungal medications to fight infection.

Most people with aplastic anemia will need a blood transfusion at some point.

If your blood count is very low, your doctor may suggest a bone marrow or stem cell transplant to boost your body’s ability to make blood cells. You would need a donor whose blood is a close match. This procedure can sometimes cure aplastic anemia, but it is most successful in younger people, with the donor marrow from a close relative.

If a transplant is not an option for you, your doctor may prescribe drugs to try to stop your body from attacking your bone marrow.

Both of these treatments have serious risks, so talk with your doctor.

Living With Aplastic Anemia

If you have this disorder:

  • Stay away from contact sports to avoid injuries and bleeding.
  • Wash your hands often.
  • Get your annual flu shot.
  • Avoid crowds as much as you can.
  • Check with your doctor before taking a flight or going to a high elevation where there is less oxygen. You may need a blood transfusion first.

 

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by David T. Derrer, MD on March 02, 2014

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