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Understanding Anemia -- the Basics

What Causes Anemia? continued...

During early pregnancy, sufficient folic acid can help prevent the fetus from developing neural tube defects such as spina bifida.

Bone marrow and stem cell problems may prevent the body from producing enough red blood cells. Some of the stem cells found in bone marrow develop into red blood cells. If stem cells are too few, defective, or replaced by other cells such as metastatic cancer cells, anemia may result. Anemia resulting from bone marrow or stem cell problems include:

  • Aplastic anemia occurs when there's a marked reduction in the number of stem cells or absence of these cells. Aplastic anemia can be inherited, can occur without apparent cause, or can occur when the bone marrow is injured by medications, radiation, chemotherapy, or infection.
  • Thalassemia occurs when the red cells can't mature and grow properly. Thalassemia is an inherited condition that typically affects people of Mediterranean, African, Middle Eastern, and Southeast Asian descent. This condition can range in severity from mild to life-threatening; the most severe form is called Cooley's anemia.
  • Lead exposure is toxic to the bone marrow, leading to fewer red blood cells. Lead poisoning occurs in adults from work-related exposure and in children who eat paint chips, for example. Improperly glazed pottery can also taint food and liquids with lead.

Anemia associated with other conditions usually occurs when there are too few hormones necessary for red blood cell production. Conditions causing this type of anemia include the following:

Anemia Caused by Destruction of Red Blood Cells

When red blood cells are fragile and cannot withstand the routine stress of the circulatory system, they may rupture prematurely, causing hemolytic anemia. Hemolytic anemia can be present at birth or develop later. Sometimes there is no known cause. Known causes of hemolytic anemia may include:

  • Inherited conditions, such as sickle cell anemia and thalassemia
  • Stressors such as infections, drugs, snake or spider venom, or certain foods
  • Toxins from advanced liver or kidney disease
  • Inappropriate attack by the immune system (called hemolytic disease of the newborn when it occurs in the fetus of a pregnant woman)
  • Vascular grafts, prosthetic heart valves, tumors, severe burns, exposure to certain chemicals, severe hypertension, and clotting disorders
  • In rare cases, an enlarged spleen can trap red blood cells and destroy them before their circulating time is up.


WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on March 04, 2015
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