Aplastic anemia is a condition where the bone marrow doesn’t make enough new blood cells. With regular anemia, the person doesn’t have enough red blood cells but with aplastic anemia, they don’t have enough of all types of blood cell, including white blood cells and platelets.
Blood needs to be constantly reproduced because red blood cells only live 120 days, platelets live about six days and white blood cells live less than one day.
If stocks aren’t replenished, it can lead to all sorts of health problems including infections, bleeding, an irregular heartbeat and an enlarged heart. Severe cases can result in death.
The condition is more common in children and young adults. Between 600-900 American people get aplastic anemia every year.
Why does aplastic anemia occur?
Aplastic anemia occurs when stem cells in your bone marrow are destroyed. These stem cells normally make blood cells.
This problem is thought to be triggered by autoimmune dysfunction, when the immune system fails to recognise what is "you" and what is "foreign" and begins attacking your own cells.
Some causes of this autoimmune dysfunction include:
• Radiotherapy and chemotherapy
• Treatments for autoimmune disorders such as lupus
• Pregnancy - Pregnancy leads to a temporary depression of the immune system so the mother’s immune system won't attack the growing fetus as a foreign body. Sometimes this can result in immune system problems such as aplastic anemia. This may be temporary and can improve after the birth.
Other cases may be genetic, that is, they are passed from parent to child. If the aplastic anemia is hereditary then the affected child may also have other genetic abnormalities.
In the majority of cases, doctors aren’t sure what caused the immune dysfunction.
Symptoms include tiredness, dizziness, headaches, chest pain, cold hands and feet, pale complexion, nausea, easy bruising, nose bleeds, bleeding gums, blood in stool, fevers, infections and flu-like illnesses.
Girls and women may also have heavy menstrual periods.
How is It Treated?
You may be offered immune-suppressive treatment to suppress the overactive immune response and prevent your immune system from attacking your bone marrow. This will allow the marrow to make more blood cells and your symptoms should decrease.
Bone Marrow and Stem Cell Transplantation
This involves having chemotherapy and radiotherapy to kill off your bone marrow and then giving you a blood transfusion of healthy stem cells from a donor.
These stem cells will then make new blood cells for you. In some cases a cure may be possible from a stem cell transplant.
Other ways to manage the condition include blood transfusions, growth hormones (which encourage your bone marrow to produce more blood cells) and antibiotics to either prevent or treat infections resulting from low white blood cell counts.
Issues to Consider
If you are female and have had aplastic anemia in the past and would like to get pregnant, there is a chance that pregnancy can cause a relapse of the condition so this should be taken into consideration when making childbearing decisions.
There are also risks with air travel. If your aplastic anemia is not cured, air travel can cause chest pains and shortage of oxygen.
Re-circulated cabin air puts you at increased risk of picking up viruses and bacteria from other passengers, which you will be particularly susceptible to if you are taking immune-suppressive medications.
It may be best to choose an alternative mode of transport or to speak to your doctor before you book any flights.
What is Aplastic Anemia? National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. Web. 19 June 2012.
What are the Signs and Symptoms of Aplastic Anemia? National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. Web. 19 June 2012.
Aplastic Anemia: Causes, Aplastic Anemia and MDS International Foundation. Web. 19 June 2012.
Aplastic Anemia: Treatment, Aplastic Anemia and MDS International Foundation. Web. 19 June 2012.
Special Issues for People with Aplastic Anemia, Aplastic Anemia and MDS International Foundation. Web. 19 June 2012. http://www.aamds.org/about/aplastic-anemia/special-issues
Joanna is a freelance health writer for The Mother magazine and Suite 101 with a column on infertility, http://infertility.suite101.com/ She is the mother of five children and practices natural childbirth, delayed cord clamping, full term breastfeeding and organic food diet.
Reviewed June 20, 2012
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith