What is anemia?

One speaks of anemia when there is a lack of red blood pigment ( hemoglobin ) and/or red blood cells ( erythrocytes ) and thus an insufficient proportion of blood cells ( hematocrit ) in the body. These are the decisive parameters for diagnosing anemia.

Important to know: The number of red blood cells does not always correlate with the red blood pigment. The number of red blood cells can still be normal or even increased, although there is already a reduction in the red blood pigment.

More than half of the blood consists of blood plasma. Numerous substances are dissolved in it – from hormones and other messenger substances to nutrients (proteins, salts and sugar). These substances finally reach all regions of the body with the blood and supply the organs and tissues there.

The other half of the blood is made up of cells. This proportion is measured by the hematocrit value. These cells are divided into three major groups: the white blood cells ( leukocytes ) are part of the body’s defense system and protect the body against infections; the blood platelets ( thrombocytes ) are involved in hemostasis and the red blood cells ( erythrocytes ) transport the oxygen in the body.

The vast majority of blood cells are made up of red blood cells. They take over one of the most important tasks of the blood system: transporting oxygen and carbon dioxide. Essential for this task is a molecule called hemoglobin, which is found in the erythrocytes and is responsible for the red color of the blood.

The oxygen that enters the blood through the lungs binds to certain regions of this molecule. The hemoglobin carries it throughout the body and eventually delivers it to the organs and tissues where it is needed. In exchange, the metabolic product carbon dioxide (CO2) binds to the hemoglobin. Carbon dioxide is thus transported back to the lungs and exhaled.

If there are too few erythrocytes or too little hemoglobin in the body, the organs receive too little oxygen. This can cause symptoms – however, those affected experience the symptoms to varying degrees as weak or strong. Not all symptoms are always present.

The classic symptoms of anemia include:

  • tiredness and lack of concentration
  • Headache
  • dizziness
  • Shortness of breath to heart palpitations under stress.

The often described pallor of the skin is a rather unspecific sign. It occurs because the blood vessels constrict in response to the lack of oxygen. You can read more about the possible signs of different forms of anemia below in the "Symptoms of anemia" section.

The family doctor can diagnose anemia with the help of a simple blood test. If anemia is present, it is important to determine the causes in order to be able to take appropriate measures. Depending on the cause and severity, a change in diet, medication, or medical intervention (for example, to remove a source of bleeding) may be necessary. If the symptoms of anemia are very pronounced, it may also be necessary under certain circumstances to supply the missing amount of red blood cells via a blood transfusion.

Causes of anemia

Normally there is a balance between blood formation and blood breakdown or blood loss. In the case of anemia, this balance is disturbed. The causes of anemia can be varied and also combined. Thus, in addition to disturbed blood formation, increased blood breakdown or loss can prevail at the same time.

Symptoms of anemia

If there are not enough red blood cells in the circulatory system, this can cause those affected to feel tired and exhausted. It happens that the skin loses color and a pallor appears. As described, however, the pallor of the skin is a rather uncertain sign of anemia. Concentration can also be impaired, and those affected can also feel dizzy during exertion. Some patients complain of noise or throbbing in the ears or freeze quickly.

If the degree of anemia is greater, the heartbeat may accelerate (tachycardia). The pulse weakens, there is sweating, dizziness, and possibly even shortness of breath and fainting. Especially in patients with a pre-damaged heart, the lack of oxygen supply to the pumping organ and the increased stress caused by the increased heartbeat can lead to a heart attack.

Blood loss sometimes occurs gradually. If smaller amounts of blood are lost over a longer period of time, anemia may occur without the affected person noticing. The body compensates for the slow loss. Up to two-thirds of blood cells can be lost insidiously, without those affected feeling more than some tiredness and exhaustion.

However, such blood losses may still be dangerous – which is why you should consult a doctor if you have a frequent feeling of weakness and persistent fatigue and have possible causes clarified.


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