Hemolytic anemia occurs when red blood cells break down faster than they are produced. The consequence of this is a lack of red blood cells.
If the disease is naturally occurring, it is usually due to hereditary defects in the production of red blood cells. The consequence of these defects is the abnormal shape of red blood cells whose life is much shorter than normal. One type of congenital (hereditary) hemolytic anemia is hereditary spherocytosis. The other two types – thalassemia and sickle cell anemia – are the consequence of faults in producing hemoglobin rather than faults in the production of red blood cells themselves.
It can occur as a result from taking a drug for another disorder – for example, for ulcerative colitis or some skin disease. The drug damages the red blood cells and shortens their lifespan. On the other hand, the body may lose its ability to differentiate its own cells from foreign bodies such as bacteria or viruses (so-called autoimmune diseases). The consequence of this is the formation of antibodies that attack and destroy their own blood cell bodies, including red blood cells.
The main symptoms are the same as in other types of anemia, i.e. occasional weaknesses, high temperature and vomiting. In addition, skin may turn yellow, and (rarely) urine is darker than otherwise.
All forms of hemolytic anemia are rare, and occur only in one in 15,000 individuals. The natural form of this type of anemia is more likely to occur if one of the close relatives is also suffering from it. The disease rarely ends up with death.
What to do?
If you have any of the symptoms described, contact your doctor. If you have a yellow skin or if you are taking any medicines for another disorder, contact your doctor immediately. Blood tests will show whether you are suffering from hemolytic anemia. Further tests in the hospital may be required to detect the cause.
Hereditary spherocytosis is primarily treated by spleen removal (splenectomy), the ”main place” of destruction of red blood cells. After this surgery the condition improves quite well, and liver and lymph glands take over all other spleen functions. Hemolytic anemia caused by drugs is treated simply by interrupting such therapy. If the cause is a disorder in autoimmune system, the condition is improving by itself after several years. Your doctor can prescribe corticosteroids to relieve symptoms and accelerate spontaneous healing. If this does not help, it may be necessary to remove the spleen surgically.