Most blood disorders decrease the number of cells, proteins, platelets, or nutrients in the blood, or interfere with their function. A majority of blood disorders are caused by mutations in parts of specific genes and can be passed down in families.
Some medical conditions, medications, and lifestyle factors can also cause blood disorders to develop.
What is a blood disorder?
A blood disorder is any condition that impacts one or more parts of the blood, usually interfering with its ability to work correctly.
Many blood disorders take their name from the component of the blood they impact.
The following categories describe blood disorders that cause a decrease in blood components or affect their function:
- anemia – if the disorder involves red blood cells
- leukopenia – if the disorder affects white blood cells
- thrombocytopenia – if the disorder concerns platelets
Categories of blood disorders that increase blood components are:
- erythrocytosis – if the disorder involves red blood cells
- leukocytosis – if the disorder affects white blood cells
- thrombocythemia or thrombocytosis – if the disorder concerns platelets
Anemias, where there are not enough red blood cells or the cells do not work correctly, are among the most common blood disorders. According to the American Society of Hematology, anemia affects more than 3 million Americans.
The most common types are:
- iron-deficiency anemias — when the body does not have enough iron or cannot properly absorb it
- pregnancy anemia — when there is more of a demand for red blood cells than normal
- vitamin-deficiency anemias — usually caused by low dietary intake of vitamin B-12 and folate
- non-inherited hemolytic anemias — where red blood cells are broken and destroyed in the bloodstream abnormally, either by injury, illness, or medications
- inherited hemolytic anemias — where red blood cells are broken down or destroyed more quickly than the body can replace them
- aplastic anemias — when the bone marrow stop producing enough blood cells
Treatment and diagnosis
If the cause of anemia is not apparent, such as injury or infection, or to assess anemia, a doctor will:
- do a physical exam
- review individual and family medical history
- carry out blood tests, such as complete blood counts, reticulocyte count, and peripheral blood smear
- do bone marrow aspiration and biopsy
Treatment depends on the cause but commonly includes:
- blood transfusions
- dietary changes
- medications that stimulate the production of bone marrow and new red blood cells
Symptoms depend on what part of the blood or organs is affected, as well as the severity and extent of the condition.
However, the majority of people with significant blood disorders tend to experience a general feeling of being unwell for no apparent reason.
Signs of white blood cell disorders include:
- frequent infections
- wounds that do not heal or are slow to heal
- unexplained exhaustion
- unexplained weight loss
Signs of red blood cell disorders include:
- unexplained exhaustion
- shortness of breath
- dizziness or light-headedness
- rapid heartbeat
- muscle weakness
- difficulty concentrating and remembering
Signs of platelet and clotting disorders include:
- difficulty forming blood clots at wounds or controlling bleeding
- injuries that are slow to heal or keep re-opening
- unexplainable bruising or skin that easily bruises
- unexplainable bleeding from the nose, gums, gastrointestinal system, or urogenital system
Many blood disorders can affect different components of the blood, including the white blood cells, red blood cells, and plasma.
Symptoms vary according to the type of blood disorder a person has, but most include general feelings of being unwell with no apparent cause, unexplained exhaustion, and unexplained weight loss.
Treatments vary depending on the type and severity of the condition but will often include chemotherapy or radiation therapy.
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