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Idiopathic Aplastic Anemia

What Is Idiopathic Aplastic Anemia?

Idiopathic aplastic anemia is a type of anemia in which your bone marrow stops making new blood cells. This can cause major health complications.

People with anemia don’t have enough functioning red blood cells (RBCs). RBCs are responsible for carrying oxygen. When you are anemic, your body does not transport oxygen efficiently and this can make you tired and weak.

RBCs carry oxygen using a protein called hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is necessary for efficient oxygen transport. It tightly binds oxygen in areas with high oxygen and then releases it in areas that need oxygen. Hemoglobin also makes your blood look red.

Hemoglobin contains iron, which is necessary for hemoglobin to bind oxygen. Many cases of anemia stem from an iron deficiency. These types of anemia are easily treatable. However, aplastic anemia starts with a bone marrow problem and it is not caused by iron deficiency.

The condition is rare, but it can be fatal if left untreated. If you have symptoms of aplastic anemia, see your doctor right away.

Symptoms of Aplastic Anemia

The symptoms of aplastic anemia are similar to those of general anemia. When your RBC count is low, you may experience:

  • dizziness
  • excessive fatigue
  • sensitivity to cold temperatures
  • weakness
  • rapid heart rate
  • irritability
  • paleness
  • shortness of breath

Low platelet counts can cause:

  • nose bleeds
  • bleeding in the gums
  • the skin to bruise easily
  • rash with small pinpoints

The effects of idiopathic aplastic anemia on WBC levels are not easy to detect. However, with fewer WBCs you will be more susceptible to infections.

Causes of Aplastic Anemia

Aplastic anemia is caused by damage to the bone marrow.

Stem cells in the marrow normally make blood cells, including:

  • red blood cells (RBCs)
  • white blood cells (WBCs)
  • platelets

This process is disrupted in people with aplastic anemia. Stem cells are damaged and too few blood cells are made.

Numerous conditions can damage your bone marrow. In people with idiopathic aplastic anemia, the cause of that damage is often unknown and several factors have been linked to it.

Some scientists believe that aplastic anemia may be an autoimmune condition. In autoimmune diseases, the body attacks its own cells like an infection. Other possible causes include:

  • a reaction to some drugs used to treat arthritis, epilepsy, or infection; or to

toxic chemicals used in industry or farming, such as benzene, solvents, or glue vapors

  • exposure to radiation or chemotherapy for cancer treatment
  • anorexia nervosa, a severe eating disorder that has been associated with aplastic anemia
  • some viruses like Epstein-Barr, HIV, or other herpes viruses

Although rare, it is possible that aplastic anemia can be inherited. Aplastic anemia is not caused by iron deficiency.

Diagnosing Idiopathic Aplastic Anemia

All types of anemia are first diagnosed with a blood test. A complete blood count (CBC) will show if you have low levels of RBCs, WBCs, or platelets.

Once anemia is diagnosed, it’s important to determine its cause. If your doctor suspects aplastic anemia, you may need a bone marrow biopsy. A needle will be inserted into your hip bone to collect the marrow. The sample will be examined to see how many stem cells are present.

Your doctor will classify your idiopathic aplastic anemia as acute or chronic. Acute cases come on suddenly and they are quite severe. Chronic cases develop more slowly. However, they are just as difficult to treat.

Treatment Options for Aplastic Anemia

Treatment depends on the severity of your condition. Some mild forms of aplastic anemia don’t require treatment. Stopping a medication or staying away from possible chemicals may be recommended. Many moderate cases require blood and platelet transfusions. Transfusions are generally necessary for acute cases.

Bone marrow transplants can be used to treat severe cases. This procedure replaces your stem cells with those from a donor. The treatment works best in people under 40 years who have sibling donors.

Long-Term Outlook

Severe and acute idiopathic aplastic anemia can be fatal. Proper treatment is key. Younger people have the best survival rates, as they generally respond well to treatment.

Potential treatment complications include:

  • adverse drug reactions
  • infections
  • severe bleeding
  • bone marrow transplant failure

Aplastic Anemia Prevention

There is no known way to prevent idiopathic aplastic anemia. Unlike other forms of anemia, it can’t be prevented by using iron supplements.

Pay attention to your body and talk to your doctor if you develop anemia symptoms. Prompt treatment can help keep you feeling well.

Content licensed from:

Written by: Kristeen Moore
Medically reviewed on: Jan 25, 2016: Deborah Weatherspoon, Ph.D, MSN, RN, CRNA

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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