Low Red Blood Cell Count(Anemia)-What Does it Mean?

Have you ever felt unusually tired, weak, or short of breath, even after a good night’s sleep? These could be signs of a low red blood cell count, also known as anemia. In this article, we’ll explore what anemia means, its causes, symptoms, and treatment options.

Red Blood Cells and Their Function

Before we dive into the specifics of anemia, let’s take a moment to appreciate the incredible role red blood cells play in our bodies. These tiny, disc-shaped cells are the unsung heroes of our circulatory system, tirelessly delivering oxygen to every corner of our body.

1. The Oxygen Express

Red blood cells, also called erythrocytes, contain a protein called hemoglobin. This remarkable molecule acts like a magnet for oxygen, picking it up in our lungs and releasing it to tissues and organs throughout our body. Without this constant supply of oxygen, our cells wouldn’t be able to produce the energy they need to function.

2. The Life Cycle of Red Blood Cells

Our bodies are constantly producing new red blood cells to replace old ones. On average, a red blood cell lives for about 120 days before it’s recycled by the liver and spleen. This continuous cycle ensures we always have a fresh supply of these vital cells.

What is the Low Red Blood Cell (RBC) Count?

Your red blood cell count (RBC) is the number of red blood cells in your body. To measure low red blood cell count, you should know the normal RBC count.

Typically, men have an RBC of 4.7 million to 6.1 million cells per microliter (MCL). Women have a slightly lower count of 4.2 million to 5.4 million cells/mcL; the values of a pregnant woman should be slightly lower.

Children have an RBC of 4.0 million to 5.5 million cells per microliter (MCL). However, this number can vary between individuals depending on your age and the testing laboratory.

Low Red Blood Cell Count
Low Red Blood Cell Count Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

What is Anemia?

Anemia occurs when you don’t have enough healthy red blood cells to carry adequate oxygen to your body’s tissues. It’s not a single disease, but rather a condition that can have many different causes. Think of it as a warning sign that something in your body needs attention.

When you have anemia, your body has to work harder to get enough oxygen to your tissues. This can lead to a variety of symptoms and, if left untreated, can impact your overall health and quality of life.

Types of Anemia

There are over 400 types of anemia, but they generally fall into three main categories:

  • Anemia caused by blood loss: This can be due to injuries, surgery, or conditions that cause internal bleeding, such as ulcers or certain cancers. Even small, chronic blood losses can lead to anemia over time.
  • Anemia caused by decreased or faulty red blood cell production: This includes iron-deficiency anemia, vitamin B12 deficiency anemia, and anemia related to chronic diseases. In these cases, your body either lacks the raw materials to make red blood cells or has trouble using them effectively.
  • Anemia caused by the destruction of red blood cells: This type, called hemolytic anemia, can be inherited or acquired. In this case, red blood cells are being destroyed faster than they can be replaced.

What Causes a Low Red Blood Count?

Several factors can usually be anemia. The three common causes of anemia include:

1. Iron Deficiency Anemia

This is the most common type of anemia worldwide, affecting an estimated 1.62 billion people. Iron is essential for the production of hemoglobin, and without enough of it, your body can’t make enough healthy red blood cells. Common causes include:

  • Inadequate iron intake in the diet
  • Blood loss (e.g., heavy menstrual periods, gastrointestinal bleeding)
  • Pregnancy (increased iron demands)
  • Inability to absorb iron (e.g., celiac disease, gastric bypass surgery)

Iron deficiency can sneak up on you. Your body has some iron stores, and it may take months or even years of insufficient iron intake before anemia develops.

2. Vitamin Deficiency Anemia

Your body needs folate and vitamin B12 to produce healthy red blood cells. A lack of these vitamins can lead to anemia. This type is common in:

  • Older adults
  • Vegetarians and vegans (B12 is mainly found in animal products)
  • People with certain digestive disorders

Vitamin B12 deficiency can be particularly tricky because the body can store B12 for several years. Symptoms may not appear until the deficiency is quite severe.

3. Anemia of Chronic Disease

Certain long-term medical conditions can interfere with the production of red blood cells. These include:

  • Kidney disease
  • Cancer
  • HIV/AIDS
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Inflammatory bowel disease

In these cases, treating the underlying condition is often key to improving the anemia.

4. Aplastic Anemia

This rare but serious condition occurs when your body stops producing enough new blood cells. It can be caused by:

  • Autoimmune disorders
  • Certain medications
  • Exposure to toxic chemicals
  • Viral infections

Aplastic anemia can develop suddenly or slowly and can be temporary or long-lasting.

5. Hemolytic Anemia

In this type of anemia, red blood cells are destroyed faster than they can be replaced. It can be inherited or acquired due to factors like:

  • Autoimmune disorders
  • Infections
  • Certain medications

Some types of hemolytic anemia, like sickle cell disease, are inherited and present from birth. Others can develop later in life.

How to Deal With Low Red Blood Cell Count (Anemia)
How to Deal With Low Red Blood Cell Count (Anemia)

Recognizing the Symptoms of Anemia

Anemia can sneak up on you, with symptoms often developing gradually. Here are some common signs to watch out for:

It’s important to note that these symptoms can vary depending on the cause of anemia, how quickly it develops, and its severity. Some people with mild anemia may not experience any symptoms at all.

How to Deal With Low Red Blood Cell Count (Anemia)

1. Low RBC Count Caused by Iron Deficiency

When you don’t have enough iron in your blood, your body won’t produce enough red blood cells.

 Symptoms of Anemia Caused by Iron Deficiency

  • Pica (eating unusual substances like paint, dirt, or paper)
  • Sore mouth
  • Breaks at the corners of the mouth
  • Koilonychias (A condition when the fingers curve upwards)

How to treat your iron deficiency anemia depend on its severity. Your doctor may recommend iron supplements, dietary changes, or red blood transfusions if your condition is severe.

Top tip: Taking in excess iron can also be dangerous. If you take too much iron, you may experience headaches, vomiting, diarrhea, and fatigue. If you start feeling these side effects, I recommend taking iron supplements between meals. Your doctor may also suggest meals rich in iron.

2. Low RBC Count Caused by Sudden Blood Loss

During pregnancy or external bleeding, you can lose a lot of blood. If your red blood cell count drops below the normal range, you must recover the lost red blood cells. Your doctor may suggest a blood transfusion or treat you with fluids.

Top tip: If the blood loss is minimal, you can also stick with the treatment for iron deficiency anemia.

3. Low RBC Count caused by the deficiency of Vitamin B12 and Folate

Unfortunately, anemia caused by Vitamin B12 and Folate deficiency can be challenging to differentiate, especially since they have similar symptoms.

If your vitamin B12 level is low, your red blood cells won’t have the same shape as a healthy red blood cell. They’ll appear bigger and irregularly shaped.

As you age, your body loses the ability to retain Vitamins B12 properly, especially if you’re a vegan.

Symptoms of Anemia Caused by Vitamin B12 Deficiency

  • Dementia
  • Difficulty walking
  • Lost sense of touch
  • Stiff arms and legs
  • Tingling sensation in the hands and feet

Once you detect a deficiency in vitamin B12, your doctor will put you on vitamin B12 injections. If you’re not a fan of needles and prefer taking medications orally, you can also take Vitamin B12 tablets. However, you’ll need to take them in very high dosages.

Top tip: You can take it daily as oral tablets or go for injections every three months. Once you take adequate vitamin B12, the low red blood count symptoms will improve drastically. Alternatively, you can boost the vitamin B12 level in your body by eating diets that contain fish, meat, milk, eggs, and cheese.

4. Treatment For Low RBC Count Caused by Folate Deficiency

The body needs folate to produce healthy red blood cells; when you don’t have enough folate, your red blood cells don’t live as long as they can. Once your doctor diagnoses folic acid deficiency as the cause of your anemia, he will most likely recommend folic acid supplements.

Top tip: I recommend you eat many foods rich in folate. Folate-rich sources include fresh fruits, vegetables, milk, and whole-grain cereals.

5. Treatment for Anemia Caused by Bone Marrow complications

Anemia caused by a bone marrow fault is one of the hardest types of anemia to treat. Luckily, some anemias go away without needing treatment.

Symptoms of Anemia Caused by Destruction of Red blood cells

  • Jaundice (yellowing of skin and eyes)
  • Death in infants
  • Passing of brown or red urine
  • Sores in the leg
  • Symptoms of gallstones

However, the more persistent anemias will require repeated transfusions and, in extreme cases, bone marrow transplantation.

6. Treatment For Low RBC Count caused by underlying chronic disease

When red blood cells start decreasing due to an underlying condition, the best option is to treat chronic illness. Chances are, as the symptoms of the disease improve, your anemia will improve too.

To boost the number of your red blood cells, your doctor may administer Erythropoietin, a hormone that triggers the production of healthy red blood cells.

1. Add Iron-Rich Foods to your diet

Iron is crucial in the production of healthy red blood cells.

Eating iron-rich foods helps fortify the iron level in your red blood cells. Iron-rich food sources include red meat, beans, legumes, and green vegetables.

Top tip: When taking iron supplements, I recommend taking them with Vitamin C. Vitamin C helps your body absorb iron.

2. Eating food rich in folic acid

Your body needs folic acid to produce healthy red blood cells. You can boost your folic acid content by eating beans, cereals, peas, and green leafy vegetables.

3. Eat copper-rich foods

When you’re always feeling tired and weak, chances are your body doesn’t have enough copper. Additionally, copper also increases the rate of iron absorption. Eating copper-rich foods like whole grains, nuts, beans, and chocolate can improve your red blood cell count.

4. Eat more Vitamin A

Although Vitamin A deficiency can also cause anemia, there’s still little evidence on how it affects our health. Contrary to popular belief, Vitamin A also helps to reduce anemia and increase red blood cells. Excellent sources of vitamin A include sweet potatoes, carrots, watermelon, red pepper, and dark green leafy vegetables.

5. Drink Water

Anemia often comes with uncomfortable dehydration. Drinking at least 8-10 glasses of Water daily helps your body stay hydrated.

Top tip: Fortifying your drinking water with iron supplements will also help prevent and treat iron deficiency anemia.

6. Lifestyle changes

Making gradual lifestyle changes can help you manage and prevent anemia. Here are some lifestyle changes we recommend. Maintain a healthy sleep schedule; make sure you don’t stay in bed for too long.

7. Exercise

Exercise doesn’t only help you improve your health, and it can be of immense benefit if you’re dealing with anemia. When you exercise, your body tells your brain it needs more oxygen, and in turn, your body produces more red blood cells.

When to Seek Medical Attention?

While mild anemia can often be managed at home under a doctor’s guidance, there are times when you should seek immediate medical attention. Contact your healthcare provider if you experience:

  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Unusually rapid heart rate
  • Confusion or difficulty concentrating

These could be signs of severe anemia or complications related to anemia. Don’t hesitate to seek help if you’re concerned about your symptoms.

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