Anemia of Chronic Disease
Certain long term medical conditions, such as cancer and infectious and inflammatory diseases can cause anemia. Anemia is a low level of healthy red blood cells (RBC). RBCs carry oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. When red blood cells are low the body does not get enough oxygen. This can cause symptoms such as fatigue, pale skin, or irregular heartbeat.
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Certain illnesses will prompt your body to limit how much iron is freely available. This will prevent the infection or cancer from using the iron to grow. Unfortunately, iron is also needed to make healthy RBCs. Over time this will lead to fewer new red blood cells.
Long term illnesses that can lead to anemia, include
- Chronic infections, such as tuberculosis , lung abscess, and subacute endocarditis
- Noninfectious inflammatory diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis , osteomyelitis , systemic lupus erythematosus , and inflammatory bowel disease
- Common childhood infections, including ear infections and urinary tract infections
- Congestive heart failure , thyroid disease, and kidney failure
- Cancer, particularly Hodgkin’s disease , lung cancer , and breast cancer
Anyone of any age with a chronic inflammatory or infectious disease may be at risk for ACD, but the elderly are among those at highest risk.
ACD usually develops slowly, producing few or no symptoms. When symptoms do occur, they are usually mild. Symptoms include:
- Pale complexion, dizziness, fatigue, and rapid heartbeat
- Infection, fever (even mild)
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history, particularly any history of chronic inflammatory or infectious disease or cancer, and perform a physical exam. Blood tests may include:
- Red blood cell count
- Hemoglobin level
- Serum iron level
- Serum ferritin level
- Serum transferrin receptor level
- Transferrin iron binding capacity
- Total iron binding capacity (TIBC)
Because iron stores will be elevated in the bone marrow, a bone marrow biopsy may also be performed.
With ACD, if the underlying disease causing it is found and treated, the anemia may improve or clear on its own. Iron supplements and vitamins are generally not effective.
For severe cases of ACD, blood transfusions may be necessary. Another treatment is to give erythropoiesis-stimulating agents (ESAs), which help stimulate growth of new red blood cells. Examples of ESAs include epoetin and darbepoetin . These drugs do have risks that are important to consider before using them. There is some evidence that ESAs may shorten survival in cancer patients.
If you have a chronic medical condition, continue prescribed treatment and maintain regular visits with your doctor.
- Marcin Chwistek, MD
- Reviewed: 09/2013
- Updated: 09/30/2013
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