Aplastic anemia occurs when your bone marrow doesn’t make enough red and white blood cells, and platelets.
The Division of Pediatric Hematology and Oncology at MassGeneral Hospital for Children provides personalized multidisciplinary, state-of-the-art care to children of all ages with malignancies and disorders of the blood.
What is aplastic anemia?
Aplastic anemia occurs when your bone marrow doesn’t make enough red and white blood cells, and platelets. Having fewer red blood cells causes hemoglobin to drop.
Hemoglobin is the part of blood that carries oxygen through your body. Having fewer white blood cells makes you more likely to get an infection. And having fewer platelets makes the blood too thin. This means your blood can’t clot the way it should.
What causes aplastic anemia?
Aplastic anemia has many causes. Sometimes it occurs for no known reason. Other causes are linked to a past illness or disorder. Risk factors may include:
History of certain infectious diseases, such as hepatitis, HIV, Epstein-Barr virus, or CMV)
History of taking certain medicines, such as antibiotics and anticonvulsants
Exposure to certain toxins, such as heavy metals
Exposure to radiation
History of an autoimmune disease, such as lupus
An inherited condition
Who is at risk for aplastic anemia?
Aplastic anemia can occur at any age. But it is more common among teens, young adults, and older adults. Your risk increases if you:
Are exposed to toxins
Take certain medicines
Have a disease such as hepatitis or HIV
What are the symptoms of aplastic anemia?
Each person’s symptoms may vary. Symptoms may include:
Upset stomach (nausea)
Shortness of breath
Lack of energy or tiring easily (fatigue)
Abnormal paleness or lack of color in the skin
Blood in stool
Enlarged liver or spleen
White patches in the mouth (oral thrush)
These symptoms may look like other blood disorders or health problems. Always see your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.
How is aplastic anemia diagnosed?
Your healthcare provider will take your health history and give you a physical exam. You may also have tests such as:
Blood tests. These may include blood chemistries, evaluation of liver and kidney functions, and genetic studies.
Bone marrow aspiration or biopsy. This involves taking a small amount of bone marrow fluid (aspiration) or solid bone marrow tissue (core biopsy). These are often taken from the hip bones. They are checked for the number, size, and maturity of blood cells or abnormal cells.
How is aplastic anemia treated?
Treatment will depend on your symptoms, age, and general health. It will also depend on how severe the condition is.
Aplastic anemia is a serious illness. Treatment often depends on the underlying cause. For certain causes, you may recover after treatment. But the condition can come back. To treat the low blood counts, early treatment may include:
Blood transfusion (both red blood cells and platelets)
Preventive antibiotic therapy
Good hygiene to prevent infection
Special care when making food such as only eating well-cooked foods
Staying away from construction sites, which may be a source of certain fungi
Medicines to stimulate the bone marrow to make cells
Treatment to reduce your body’s immune system response
In certain people, a bone marrow transplant may cure aplastic anemia.
Living with aplastic anemia
Managing aplastic anemia includes working closely with your healthcare provider and following your treatment plan. Tell your healthcare provider about any symptoms you are having. You are more at risk of infections so you should:
Stay away from people who are sick
Not be around large crowds
Wash your hands often
Not eat foods that are not cooked all the way through
Brush your teeth regularly
Get your annual flu shot
Develop a physical fitness plan with your provider
Key points about aplastic anemia
Aplastic anemia occurs when your bone marrow doesn't make enough red and white blood cells, and platelets.
This condition can make you feel tired, raise your risk of infections, and make you bruise or bleed more easily.
To treat the low blood counts, early treatment involves easing symptoms.
Treatments may include blood transfusions, antibiotics, medicines to stimulate bone marrow production, and other therapies.
In some cases, a bone marrow transplant may cure aplastic anemia.
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:
Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.
Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.
Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed, and how it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.
Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.
Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.
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