What Is Thalassemia?

Thalassemia is a blood condition. If you have it, your body has fewer red blood cells and less hemoglobin than it should. Hemoglobin is important because it lets your red blood cells carry oxygen to all parts of your body.

Treatment is the key to living longer and better. There are also steps you can take to stay as healthy as possible.

Causes

Thalassemia is genetic. You inherit it from your parents and you have it from birth. You can’t catch thalassemia the way you catch a cold or the flu

Types

Thalassemia is really a group of blood problems, not just one. To make hemoglobin you need two proteins, alpha, and beta. Without enough of one or the other, your red blood cells can’t carry oxygen as they should. Alpha thalassemia means you lack alpha hemoglobin. With beta-thalassemia, you lack beta hemoglobin.

Symptoms

These can include:

  • Slow growth in children
  • Wide or brittle bones
  • Enlarged spleen an organ in your abdomen that filters blood and fights disease
  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Pale or yellow skin
  • Dark urine
  • Poor appetite
  • Heart problems

In some people, symptoms show up at birth. In others, it can take a couple of years to see anything. Some people who have thalassemia will show no signs at all.

Diagnosis

You’ll take blood tests. One is a CBC (complete blood count) test. The other is a hemoglobin electrophoresis test. If you are pregnant or trying to have a baby, there are tests that can be done before birth to learn if the baby will have the condition. If you do have thalassemia, you should see a blood expert known as a hematologist. You may also need other specialist doctors on your team, like those who treat the heart or liver.
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