Is your child feeling run down or tired, irritable and looking a little pale? It might just be the long Chicago winter, but it might be something to have your doctor check. Anemia is very common in children and, in most cases, easily treated.
Anemia is a description, not a disease. It means there are not enough red blood cells in the blood or not enough hemoglobin within the red blood cells themselves.
Red blood cells are really beautiful. Pull up an image of them on your computer and you'll see cells that are round, valentine-red, and look like doughnuts with the hole partially filled in. Red blood cells are supposed to be a certain size and be filled with a certain amount of hemoglobin, which gives them their color. The function of hemoglobin, and therefore red blood cells, is to carry oxygen to all of the tissues of the body.
When the red blood cells aren't the right size or don't contain the right amount of hemoglobin, the blood cannot deliver the right amount of oxygen to the tissues and that person has anemia.
Iron deficiency is the most common cause of anemia in children. Iron is also important for proper brain function. Children who don't get enough iron have anemia, but they also have poorer cognition, lower school achievement and more behavioral problems. Iron deficiency used to be much more common in the U.S., but now pasta, rice, cereals and flour used in baked goods are often fortified with iron, so it's less common today. Yet poor diet remains the number one reason for iron deficiency in children.
Anemia is diagnosed through a routine blood test and iron deficiency is so common that when anemia is diagnosed in a child, it is typical simply to give a trial of iron therapy (a liquid or pill taken by mouth) for about a month and then do another blood test to see if the anemia is resolving. If the blood count doesn't go up with iron therapy, more testing is done to explore other reasons for the anemia.
Lead poisoning is another common cause of anemia in children. It is associated with learning disabilities, growth problems, poor attention and increased aggression. Children are most commonly exposed to lead by the eating paint chips in old homes (lead was in paint prior to 1977) or dirt contaminated with lead. Recently there have been highly publicized stories of lead-based paint being used on children's toys. If lead poisoning is found, treatment may be needed to remove the lead from the body.
Dr. Lisa Thornton, a mother of three, is director of pediatric rehabilitation at Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital and LaRabida Children’s Hospital. She also is assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Chicago.
See more of Dr. Thornton's stories here.