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An Overview of Pernicious Anemia, Its Symptoms & Who’s at Risk

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There are several different forms of anemia, but one of the most misunderstood forms is pernicious anemia. This is a condition in the human body where it cannot produce enough healthy red blood cells. But what distinguishes this form of anemia is that it closely related to vitamin B12.

Vitamin B12 is needed to make red blood cells, and pernicious anemia occurs when the body’s intestines cannot absorb this vitamin. A type of protein called intrinsic factor aids the intestines in this absorption process but is inhibited in individuals with pernicious anemia.

Here is an overview of what pernicious anemia is, as well as its causes, symptoms, risk factors, and treatment options.

Causes of Pernicious Anemia

Unlike some other forms of anemia, pernicious anemia is rarely passed down genetically through families. It is most commonly caused by autoimmune conditions in which the intrinsic factor and stomach lining cells are attacked by the body’s own immune system. Another common cause of pernicious anemia is a weak stomach lining.

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Symptoms of Pernicious Anemia

The symptoms of pernicious anemia are often mild, and many people don’t even realize that they have the condition. However, one unusual symptom that can present itself with this type of anemia is pica, which is the desire to eat non-food items.

Other symptoms may include fatigue, paleness of the skin, a swollen tongue, bleeding gums, no appetite, and shortness of breath during exercise. If an individual has been lacking vitamin B12 for a long period of time, numbness of the hands and feet, mental confusion, and depression may occur as a result of nervous system damage.

Who Pernicious Anemia Affects the Most

In rare cases, babies can develop congenital pernicious anemia if their bodies don’t make enough intrinsic factor or aren’t able to absorb vitamin B12 normally through the intestines. However, this is a condition that most commonly affects adults around the age of 60. It is not uncommon for symptoms to begin presenting themselves in individuals who are in their 30s or 40s. Interestingly, studies show that people of Northern European or Scandinavian descent are most prone to this type of anemia.

Treatment Options for People with Pernicious Anemia

In addition to a complete blood count and checking the body’s vitamin B12 level, there are quite a few different tests that a physician may conduct before arriving at a diagnosis of pernicious anemia. For example, doctors may want to see the results of a Schilling test, the LDH level, the methylmalonic acid level, or the reticulocyte count before coming to this conclusion. Unfortunately, many people who have pernicious anemia are misdiagnosed and do not find relief for their symptoms until many years later.

While other anemia conditions can improve by taking iron supplements like Fergon, it is necessary for a person with pernicious anemia to increase the amount of vitamin B12 in the body. This can involve eating more vitamin B-12 rich foods, taking supplements by mouth, or getting a shot of vitamin B12 on a regular basis. Foods that contain substantial amounts of vitamin B12 and that can be helpful to pernicious anemia sufferers include shellfish, red meat, liver, tofu, dairy, eggs, and cheese.

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