Anaemia is where the number of healthy red blood cells or the amount of haemoglobin in your blood is lower than normal.

By Wallace Health I Medically reviewed by Adrian Roberts.
Page last reviewed: October 2018 I Next review due: October 2023

What is anaemia

Haemoglobin is found in red blood cells and carries oxygen around the body. If you have fewer healthy red blood cells or a low level of haemoglobin, less oxygen can get to the organs and tissues around your body. This can cause tiredness, weakness and paleness.

Anaemia can be due to:

  • Your body breaking down your red blood cells too quickly
  • Blood loss – which can cause iron deficiency anaemia
  • Your body not making enough healthy red blood cells – either because of a deficiency of vitamin B12 or vitamin B9 (folate) or an underlying problem with your bone marrow (where blood cells are made)
  • In some cases, ulcerative colitis (a type of inflammatory bowel disease) can also cause anaemia

Iron deficiency anaemia

Iron deficiency anaemia is a very common form of anaemia. Iron is important in haemoglobin production, so iron deficiency causes a low haemoglobin level in your blood. Iron deficiency may be due to a poor diet or blood loss due to:

Vitamin B12 or folate anaemia

A deficiency in vitamin B12 or folate causes the body to produce red blood cells that are larger than normal and can’t function properly. Deficiency in these vitamins may be due to:

  • A condition called pernicious anaemia – where your immune system attacks cells in your stomach that are needed to absorb B12 from food
  • Poor diet
  • Certain medications that affect how much B12 or folate your body can absorb

Treatment for anaemia includes:

  • Treating the underlying cause
  • Taking nutrient supplements or having injections
  • Improving your diet

How to tell if you have anaemia

The most common anaemia symptoms are:

Other anaemia symptoms can help identify the cause of anaemia. For example:

  • Blood in stools or urine or coughing up blood may suggest an internal bleed
  • Jaundice (yellowed skin) suggests excessive break down of red blood cells
  • Pins and needles or memory problems suggest B12 or folate deficiency

Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about symptoms. You can book an appointment with a Spire private GP today.

Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about symptoms

You can book an appointment with a Spire private GP today.

Book an appointment

Diagnosis and tests for anaemia

Anaemia can be confirmed using a simple blood disorder test which will look at the number and health of red blood cells in your blood as well as looking at other things, such as your white blood cells and platelets also found in the blood.

Your GP will also ask about your lifestyle and medical history.

Common treatments for anaemia

Once your doctor has diagnosed the cause of your anaemia, they’ll recommend the appropriate treatment.

If your anaemia is due to a deficiency, they may recommend:

  • Iron tablets
  • B12 injections or tablets
  • Folic acid tablets to restore folate levels

It can also help to improve your diet by eating foods which contain more:

  • Iron – such as dark green, leafy vegetables, red meat and fortified cereals
  • B12 – such as meat, fish, eggs, dairy and Marmite
  • Folate – green vegetables such as broccoli and peas

If your anaemia is severe or can’t be treated with supplements or diet, treatments include:

  • Medication to encourage higher red blood cell production
  • Blood transfusion
  • Corticosteroids or surgery to remove your spleen if it’s breaking down too many healthy red blood cells
  • Immunosuppressants or (more rarely) a stem cell transplant if your bone marrow isn’t making enough blood cells

You may also need to be referred for treatment for an underlying medical condition that is causing your anaemia.