Seeing Red

Red blood cells (erythrocytes) are one of the ...

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We’ve all heard the expression about being a “red-blooded American.” This came to mean an individual that is high-spirited, or passionate about causes, life in general or just being an American. When it comes to our health, we hope we’re all ‘red-blooded,’ because if the red blood count gets low it’s hard to stay passionate or active for very long. This is the problem health professionals call anemia and one of the reasons we check a blood count during routine physicals.

Normal men and women should have a hemoglobin (red blood cells) of greater than 13 (for men) and greater than 12 (for women). What we’re learning is that when we become anemic, even to a mild degree, our ability to do functional tasks such as exercise, maintaining memory, or going about our daily routines becomes difficult. We can develop dizziness, shortness of breath, profound fatigue and even mental confusion. Those with pre-existing health problems can markedly worsen as their blood counts drop. If the red blood cell count reaches critically low levels—usually a hemoglobin less than seven—an individual can go into congestive heart failure, simply by the heart trying to keep up with a low blood volume.

Of course, identifying the cause of anemia is important. When it’s due to real blood loss then we need to find out where it’s coming from and why we’re losing the blood. Frequently we find colon cancers, or other sources of bleeding in the colon, when we find microscopic evidence of blood in stool samples. Some develop anemia due to nutritional deficiencies, with an inadequate intake of iron as the number one cause. If we fall behind on getting enough folate and vitamin B12 in our daily diet we can find ourselves also developing chronic anemia. For others, just having a long-term chronic disease can result in anemia. It’s as if our bodies become worn down and fail to produce the red blood cells we need.

Testing can usually quickly show the type of anemia and guide us toward effective treatment. Unfortunately, some insurers balk at paying for this rather inexpensive test as a general screening tool. But if we never look, we may never know it’s there until serious problems develop. We need to help the insurers understand we’re talking about preventative care. So the next time you’re in your doctor’s office for that yearly physical ask, “what’s my count doc?” Keeping you “red-blooded” is just the patriotic thing to do.

About Steve P. Sanders

A general internist writing and sharing ideas and art.

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