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Autoimmune Anemia - Etiology & Symptoms

written by: Leigh A. Zaykoski • edited by: Leigh A. Zaykoski • updated: 11/22/2008

Autoimmune anemia happens when the body produces antibodies that destroy red blood cells. Find out what happens when the body turns against itself and begins destroying its own tissue.

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    Many people are familiar with the types of anemia caused by deficiencies in iron and vitamin B12, but what about autoimmune anemia? This is a lesser known type of anemia that can still have a profound effect on those people who have the condition. Autoimmune anemia is a group of disorders resulting from a malfunction of the body's immune system. Its full name is autoimmune hemolytic anemia. In a normal immune system, antibodies attack foreign substances that pose a threat to the health and well-being of the human body. In an autoimmune disorder, the body produces antibodies that attack healthy red blood cells instead of attacking foreign substances. This causes a number of symptoms and problems for patients suffering with autoimmune anemia.

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    Autoimmune Anemia Symptoms

    The symptoms of autoimmune anemia can come and go over time. Some patients have no symptoms and others are severely affected by this form of anemia (Merck Manual Home Edition). Some of the most common symptoms of autoimmune anemia include the following:

    • Shortness of breath
    • Jaundice
    • Abdominal pain and bloating
    • Pale skin
    • Fatigue

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    Autoimmune Anemia - Making the Diagnosis

    Autoimmune anemia is generally detected by using blood tests that check patients for several different lab values. Blood is drawn from a vein, usually in the arm, and a blood sample is sent to the laboratory for testing. If reticulocytes, or immature red blood cells, are present in high quantities, autoimmune anemia may be suspected. Autoimmune anemia can also be suspected when bilirubin is increased and haptoglobin appears in amounts lower than normal. These results can be confirmed by performing additional laboratory testing. The blood test that confirms autoimmune anemia will show increased amounts of antibodies present in the liquid portion of the blood or attached to the red blood cells themselves. If this is the case, the patient is diagnosed with autoimmune anemia (Merck Manual Home Edition).

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    Autoimmune Anemia Treatment

    Treatment for autoimmune anemia varies based on the severity of the condition. If the anemia is mild and little destruction of red blood cells is taking place, treatment is not usually necessary. If red blood cells are being destroyed at a fast pace, medications known as corticosteroids can be given. Persistent, severe autoimmune anemia that cannot be controlled with corticosteroids may facilitate the need for removal of the spleen or for the use of drugs that suppress the immune system. If a patient is suffering from a high level of red blood cell damage, blood transfusions may also be given (National Library of Medicine).

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    Reference Materials

    The Merck Manuals Online Medical Library: Home Edition for Patients and Caregivers. "Autoimmune Hemolytic Anemia." Retrieved November 21, 2008 from http://www.merck.com/mmhe/sec14/ch172/ch172f.html

    U.S. National Library of Medicine: Medline Plus. "Idiopathic Autoimmune Hemolytic Anemia." Retrieved November 21, 2008 from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/MEDLINEPLUS/ency/article/000579.htm

    For more information about laboratory tests for autoimmune anemia and other medical conditions, visit Lab Tests Online.