Chronic Illness • Nov 28, 2011

Does your child have anemia?

Anemia is a condition where the blood has a fewer red blood cells than usual.  There are many causes of anemia – some can be life-threatening, while others are more easily treatable. 

Anemia occurs when either too many of your red blood cells are destroyed, or not enough are made.  Our red blood cells, like many things in the body, are constantly recycled.  They have an average lifespan of 90 days.  This is why anemia frequently appears slowly over months as red blood cells are recycled, but not adequately replaced.  

The most common cause of anemia in children is iron-deficiency.  This occurs when the child does not get enough iron in his or her diet, and can be treated easily with an iron supplement.

Another cause of iron deficiency can be excessive and frequent blood loss, which can occur in older girls with heavy menstrual periods, or in children who experience frequent and severe nose bleeds. Bleeding from the intestine can also cause anemia, and is not always obvious.  Intestinal bleeding can cause your child’s stool to be black or cause a change in your child’s normal bowel habits. 

Anemia can also be caused by defects or disorders that destroy red blood cells.  Increased destruction of red blood cells causes a jaundiced appearance. Jaundice is a yellow discoloration of the skin and whites of the eyes.  If your child had prolonged jaundice as a newborn, this could be a clue to one of these conditions.  Jaundice is not as obvious in older children, and may only be seen in the eyes or cause changes in the color of your child’s urine. 

            Symptoms of anemia are unfortunately not very specific.  Fatigue, pallor, and fast heart rate are the most common.  You may notice your child appears more pale in the inner part of the eyelids or fingernails, for example.  Depending on the duration and severity of symptoms, your pediatrician can work with you to determine the cause and appropriate treatment.  If you notice any of these symptoms in your child, contact your pediatrician for further evaluation.  For more information, call the St. Louis Children’s Hospital Answer Line at 314.454.KIDS, or 800-678-KIDS.