Aplastic anemia is a medical term for the condition that is characterized by the failure of the bone marrow cells to produce enough new blood cells. The bone marrow is responsible for the formation of stem cells, from which the blood cells develop. So, when the bone marrow fails to produce enough new blood cells, it results in a low count of all the three types of blood cells - red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets.
All the three types of blood cells have limited lifespan, and so, the old and dead blood cells have to be replaced by the new cells. The main difference between anemia and aplastic anemia is that the former generally refers to a low count of red blood cells in blood, while aplastic anemia signifies a low count of all the three types of blood cells.
Several factors can impair the functions of the bone marrow and the stem cells, and lead to aplastic anemia. In many instances, it can be an autoimmune disorder, where the body's immune system attacks the bone marrow or the stem cells. Sometimes, drugs like chloramphenicol, carbamazepine, felbamate, phenytoin, quinine, and phenylbutazone may trigger this condition.
The excessive exposure to some toxic substances, such as arsenic, benzene, pesticides, insecticides, and radioactive materials can also cause this condition. In addition to these, chemotherapy and radiation therapy used in cancer treatment can cause extensive damage to the bone marrow. Even viral infections like hepatitis and HIV can affect the bone marrow and cause this condition. Sometimes, cancer that spreads to the bone marrow from other parts of the body can cause aplastic anemia. However, in almost half of the affected individuals, the disease is caused by some unknown factors.
Symptoms of Aplastic Anemia
The symptoms of this condition are produced due to the reduction in the number of blood cells. The red blood cells of the body are responsible for carrying oxygen to different parts of the body, and so, a reduction in their number impairs the normal transportation of oxygen. As a result, the affected individual can experience fatigue, shortness of breath, pale skin and gums, dizziness, palpitations, and chest pain.
On the other hand, a reduction in the number of white blood cells can reduce the ability of the immune system to fight infectious diseases. Therefore, frequent fever and infections are very common among the patients of aplastic anemia. Platelets play an important role in blood clotting, and so, a low count of platelets produces symptoms like delay in blood clotting, nosebleeds, bleeding gums, and heavy menstrual bleeding in women. Individuals with this condition can also experience nausea and skin rash.
Diagnosis and Treatment
This condition is usually diagnosed by evaluating the family and medical history of the affected individual. Several physical tests are carried out, which include a complete blood test and reticulocyte count. The reticulocyte count is carried out to measure the number of young red blood cells, so as to examine if the bone marrow is producing sufficient amounts of new red blood cells.
Apart from these, tests are also performed to examine the functions of the thyroid gland, and the levels of vitamin B12 and folic acid. This helps rule out the possibility of anemia caused by the deficiency of these vitamins. X-rays, CT scan, and ultrasound are performed to look for enlarged lymph nodes, which can be an indicator of blood cancer. However, a definitive diagnosis can require bone marrow test, which can include both aspiration and biopsy. An aspiration is usually done to find out the exact reason behind the insufficient production of blood cells by the bone marrow.
This rare disease is treated with medications, bone marrow transplantation, and blood transfusion. If it is caused by the disorder of the immune system, then immunosuppressant drugs are used. In severe cases, bone marrow transplantation is required. Blood transfusion is also required to maintain the required amount of blood cells in the body. These treatment options can alleviate the symptoms and prolong the lifespan of the affected individuals. However, a permanent cure is possible only with bone marrow transplantation.
Aplastic anemia is a rare, but life-threatening disease. If not treated on time, it can cause the death of the affected individual within a short period of just six months. However, an early diagnosis and prompt treatment can increase the survival rate to several years.
Disclaimer: This HealthHearty article is for informative purposes only, and should not be replaced for the advice of a medical professional.