Aplastic Anemia

What is Aplastic Anemia?

Aplastic anemia is a rare but very serious condition that develops as a result of damage to the bone marrow. Bone marrow is responsible for producing new blood cells for the body when the blood needs to be replenished. This is because the bone marrow is home to a person’s stem cells. Stem cells are essentially the base of all of the cells in the body and can become virtually any type of cell.

When a person suffers from aplastic anemia, it means that they do not have enough blood cells in the body because the bone marrow is either not producing them at all or is not producing enough blood cells. There are numerous ways that bone marrow can suffer damage that could lead to aplastic anemia. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy treatments for cancer can damage the bone marrow and lead to this condition. Toxic chemical exposure, some antibiotics, viral infections, and autoimmune disorders are also possible causes of aplastic anemia. Pregnancy can even be a contributing factor.

What are the Symptoms of Aplastic Anemia?

People suffering from aplastic anemia often feel chronically fatigued and weak or tired. They may also feel short of breath, dizzy, suffer from headaches, or have an irregular heartbeat. Other common symptoms of aplastic anemia include nosebleeds, bleeding gums, chronic infections, excessive bleeding, easy bruising, and pale skin.

Aplastic Anemia Causes

Aplastic anemia occurs when an individual’s bone marrow has been damaged to a point where new blood cell production is halted.

There are many ways this damage can be incurred, including:

  • Specific cancer treatments like radiation and chemotherapy (especially high-dose treatments of these)
  • Cancer in another part of the body metastasizing and spreading to the bone marrow
  • Hepatitis, Epstein-Barr virus, HIV, or other infectious diseases
  • Treatments for some autoimmune disorders (like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis)
  • Some inherited conditions (Fanconi anemia, Diamond-Blackfan anemia, Shwachman-Diamond syndrome, and Dyskeratosis congenital, for example)
  • Certain prescribed medications
  • Toxic chemicals like arsenic, benzene, or chemicals that can be found in insecticides and pesticides

The damage that causes aplastic anemia can occur at any time, and in any person. Inherited forms of the condition (called inherited aplastic anemia) are more likely to occur in children and younger adults. Acquired forms (like infections, toxic chemicals, and certain prescribed medications) are more likely to occur in adults. In the United States, Americans of Asian descent are more likely to develop the condition. Issues with access to medical care make aplastic anemia a more common condition in developing nations than in developed nations.

How is Aplastic Anemia Treated?

Medication

There a Medications can help with the management and treatment of aplastic anemia. These drugs can help to encourage the growth of blood cells. They can also serve to suppress certain immune system functions that could prevent the bone marrow from producing sufficient red blood cells.

Blood transfusions and stem cell transplants

However, oftentimes, more aggressive treatments are necessary. This can include blood transfusions, and stem cell transplants. Blood transfusions can involve red blood cell transfusions or platelet transfusions.

Chemotherapy and radiation therapy

If chemotherapy or radiation therapy is to blame, the condition will often resolve itself when cancer treatments are complete and just needs to be monitored and managed until that time.

Aplastic Anemia Prevention

Currently, there is no known way to prevent aplastic anemia. Knowing what causes the damage that leads to it and taking steps to lessen the risk factors that can be controlled should help prevent some of the damage that causes it in the first place, though.

Risk factors for aplastic anemia include:

  • High-dose radiation and chemotherapy treatments for cancer
  • Exposure to toxic chemicals
  • Use of prescription drugs to treat autoimmune disorders like chloramphenicol (for bacterial infections) or gold compounds (for rheumatoid arthritis)
  • Family history of aplastic anemia or conditions that lead to it
  • Diagnosis of conditions known to cause bone marrow damage
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Last Reviewed:
September 12, 2016
Last Updated:
June 13, 2018
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