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What is Aplastic Anemia?

written by: Sarah Mitchell • edited by: Diana Cooper • updated: 2/13/2011

What is aplastic anemia? A rare condition commonly affecting children and young adults, aplastic anemia, also known as bone marrow failure, is a serious condition damaging an individual’s bone marrow stem cells.

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    A Brief Overview of Aplastic Anemia

    What is aplastic anemia? Without bone marrow stem cells, the body cannot replenish itself with fresh blood cells, such as red and white blood cells and platelets. If the body does not receive the new blood cells it so requires, the patient can be overcome with a host of health problems, including heart failure, an enlarged heart, arrhythmias, and, in severe cases, death.[1]

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    Causes of Aplastic Anemia

    There is no one specific cause for the development of aplastic anemia; however, it is commonly attributed to acquired causes and less so from inherited conditions. In the case of acquired aplastic anemia, the patient’s immune system is negatively impacted by exposure to various sources and health conditions and, thus, posing damage to the body’s bone marrow stems cells.

    Such acquired causes typically include the following:

    • Pregnancy
    • Medications
    • Various infectious diseases and viral infections
    • Autoimmune disorders
    • Chemotherapy
    • Radiation
    • Certain toxins
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    Symptoms and Signs of Anemia

    Signs and symptoms are dependent upon the stage and severity of the aplastic anemia. The absence of new red blood cells can make a patient feel tired, among other symptoms, including dizziness, chest pain, cold hands and feet, and headaches. Patients can also experience cardiac complications, such as heart arrhythmias, heart failure, murmur or an enlarged heart.[2]

    Individuals who do not receive new white blood cells are susceptible to developing infections since the infection fighting property is no longer present. Symptoms of fever, flu-like symptoms, and infections are common. Effortless bruising and bleeding may be experienced as a result of platelet deficiency. Patients may experience nosebleeds, blood in his or her stool, heavy menses (women), and bleeding gums.[3]

    Other signs and symptoms related to aplastic anemia include nausea and paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria. Since the above signs and symptoms can mimic other health conditions, patients should consult with their physician for a proper diagnosis.

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    Aplastic Anemia Treatments and Treatment Risks

    Current treatments available today include medications for bone marrow stimulation, immune system suppression, prophylactic therapy, and infection treatment; blood transfusions for symptom reduction; and blood and marrow stem cell transplants.

    As with most medications, there are potential risks; however, these should be discussed with a health care provider. He or she can recommend an individual medicinal treatment plan while discussing the pros and cons with the patient.

    While some physicians recommend blood transfusions, they do not provide a cure and can put patients at risk for developing an allergic reaction, acquiring viruses and/or other diseases, fever, lung damage, delayed and/or acute immune hemolytic reaction, and graft-versus-host disease (GVHD).[4]

    Resembling a blood transfusion, blood and marrow stem cell transplants also present risks to patients, including GVHD, infections, and graft failure.[5]

    For those individuals suffering from a non-severe form of aplastic anemia, treatment may not be needed as long as their condition does not worsen. If, however, it does worsen or a patient has severe aplastic anemia, urgent treatment is recommended to avoid potential complications, including death.

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    Disclaimer

    The information presented herein is solely for educational purposes. The writer does not advise patients nor endorse any one treatment. Individuals with health concerns are advised to seek professional advice of a licensed health care provider.

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    Sources

    1. National Heart Lung and Blood Institute website. What Is Aplastic Anemia? (accessed January 8, 2011.) [1-3]
    2. National Heart Lung and Blood Institute website. What Are the Risks of a Blood Transfusion? (accessed January 9, 2011.)[4]
    3. National Heart Lung and Blood Institute website. What Are the Risks of a Blood and Marrow Stem Cell Transplant? (accessed January 9, 2011.)[5]
    4. National Hematologic Disease Information Services website. Aplastic Anemia and Myelodysplastic Syndromes. (accessed January 8, 2011.)