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What to Know About Anemia in Kids

Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on March 12, 2021

Anemia is a common condition in kids, affecting about 20% of children in the U.S. Anemia occurs when a child doesn’t have enough red blood cells or hemoglobin (a type of protein that allows red blood cells to carry oxygen to other cells in the body).

Most kinds of anemia are treatable. It may take a while for symptoms to go away, so your child should take it easy while recovering.

Common Causes of Anemia in Kids

Your child might have anemia if their body:

Doesn't produce enough red blood cells. This can happen if they don't have enough iron or other nutrients in their diet. 

Destroys too many red blood cells. This happens when a child has an underlying illness or has inherited a red blood cell disorder like sickle-cell anemia (when a protein called hemoglobin inside the red blood cells forms chains that clump together and cause the red blood cell to be shaped like a crescent moon or the letter C ― called a sickle cell).

Loses red blood cells through bleeding. This can occur when there is significant blood loss, such as heavy menstrual bleeding or long-term, low-grade blood loss, sometimes in their stool.

Types of Anemia in Kids

There are a few different types of anemia:

  • Iron deficiency anemia. When there isn’t enough iron in the blood. 
  • Megaloblastic anemia. This occurs when the red blood cells are too large from a lack of folic acid or vitamin B-12.
  • Hemolytic anemia. When red blood cells are destroyed, typically due to serious infection or certain medications. 
  • Sickle cell anemia. An inherited type of anemia where the child has abnormally-shaped red blood cells.
  • Cooley's anemia (thalassemia). A different inherited form of anemia with abnormal red blood cells.
  • Aplastic anemia. When the child’s bone marrow fails to make blood cells.

Which Kids Are At Risk for Anemia?

Some risk factors for anemia in kids include:

  • Premature birth or low birth weight
  • Living in poverty or inability to afford foods rich in iron
  • Consuming cow’s milk at an early age (toddlers can develop iron deficiency anemia if they drink too much cow's milk)
  • Diet low in iron, vitamins, or minerals
  • Surgery or accident with blood loss
  • Infections 
  • kidney or liver disease
  • Family history of inherited anemia, most commonly sickle cell anemia

Symptoms of Anemia in Kids

The most common symptoms of anemia in kids include:

  •  Increased heart rate
  •  Trouble catching their breath or breathlessness
  •  Lack of energy, getting tired easily 
  •  Dizziness when standing
  •  Headache
  •  Irritability 
  •  Sore, swollen tongue
  •  Yellowing of the eyes, skin, and mouth
  • Enlarged spleen or enlarged liver
  •  Delayed growth and development
  •  Poor wound and tissue healing

Anemia is often a symptom of another disease. If you suspect your child has anemia, make an appointment with your child’s doctor right away. 

Diagnosing Anemia in Kids

Your doctor can help diagnose anemia by doing a screening and some blood tests. They will often:

  •  Ask questions about your child’s symptoms
  •  Ask about your child’s diet
  •  Ask if any family members have anemia
  •  Complete a physical exam for your child

Your doctor may also run blood tests and look at red blood cells under a telescope to check on their shape and size, check the amount of hemoglobin and iron in the blood, and check for possible anemias.

Continued

To complete these tests, your doctor will place a needle into your child’s skin to remove blood. Depending on the results of the blood test, your doctor may also conduct tests on your child’s bone marrow.

Bone marrow is the spongy part inside the bone where blood cells are made. The doctor inserts a needle into the bone, taking a small sample to examine in a lab.

After your doctor gains a better understanding of what’s causing your child to experience anemia, they can help create a treatment plan. 

Treating Anemia in Kids

Treatment will depend on your child’s symptoms, age, health, and severity of the anemia.

Some types of anemia do not require treatment. However, other types of anemia may require medicine, blood transfusions, surgery, or stem cell transplants. In some cases, your child's healthcare provider may refer you to a hematologist. This is a specialist in treating blood disorders.

The most common treatment options for anemia in kids include:

  • Vitamin and mineral drops or pills
  • Iron supplements
  • A change in your child's diet
  • Stopping a medicine that’s causing anemia
  • Medicine
  • Surgery to remove the spleen
  • Blood transfusions
  • Stem cell transplants

Preventing Anemia in Kids

If your child’s anemia is related to iron-deficiency or nutritional deficiency, you can help prevent it by ensuring that your child eats a well-balanced diet.

Avoid giving your baby cow’s milk. Wait until your baby is at least 12 months old before giving them cow’s milk. Consuming cow's milk before your child is ready may cause blood loss in their stool and can also decrease the amount of iron absorbed in their gut.

If you’re breastfeeding, your baby will have an adequate supply of iron until at least 4 months of age. At 4 months of age, breastfed infants should be given iron supplements until they are eating enough iron-rich foods.

If you’re feeding your baby formula, use a baby formula with added iron. 

Feed your child aniron rich diet. Milk is low in iron and can make kids feel full, which may decrease the likelihood that they’ll eat other iron-rich foods. Good sources of iron include red meat, egg yolks, potatoes, tomatoes, beans, molasses, and raisins.

If your child has an inherited red blood cell disorder, a pediatric hematologist will provide you with supportive care and help you manage their symptoms. 

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

Cedars-Sinai: “Anemia in Children.”

Healthy Children: “Anemia in Children.”

Kids Health: “Anemia.”

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