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Aplastic anemia is a disorder involving the stem cells in a person's bone marrow that causes a shortage of all different types of blood cells, including red cells, white cells and platelets. White blood cells affect the immune system, while red blood cells affect the body’s ability to process oxygen, and platelets cause blood-clotting when a person is wounded. Lowering the levels of all three of these can cause a wide range of symptoms, because nearly all the important functions of blood are affected. Some of the most common aplastic anemia symptoms are fatigue, pale skin, irregular heart rate and wounds that won't stop bleeding. Other symptoms include headaches, dizziness, mysterious bruising and a weak immune system.
Sometimes people develop aplastic anemia symptoms suddenly, but in other cases, they may gradually progress over a long period of time. The disorder can be relatively minor, but it has the potential to be fatal in certain situations, especially without treatment. People with symptoms of aplastic anemia should generally avoid any physical activity that might lead to an injury, because bleeding can be quite dangerous for them. They should also avoid situations where infection is likely, and they may have problems with fatigue or require oxygen therapy at higher altitudes.
The causes of the disease can vary. For some people, it can be a side effect of an inherited disorder, and for others, it can develop as part of some acquired health issue later in life. Some of the common acquired causes of aplastic anemia are exposure to toxic substances and viral infections like human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or Epstein-Barr virus. Some of the inherited disorders that cause the disease include amegakaryocytic thrombocytopenia and reticular dysgenesis. About half the time, doctors are unable to identify a specific underlying cause.
In terms of diagnosing the disease, doctors may become suspicious when a patient shows several aplastic anemia symptoms, especially if they have an increased risk factor. The first step is generally to do a blood test. The thing that differentiates aplastic anemia from other disorders is that it affects all three kinds of blood cells, and this will generally stand out very quickly on a blood test. In order to confirm the diagnosis, the doctor will normally require a bone marrow biopsy, which involves piercing a bone with a needle and taking a small sample of marrow.
Treatment varies depending on the severity of the aplastic anemia symptoms. In mild cases, patients may not need any specific treatment. Moderate cases can sometimes require blood transfusions and medication. In the most severe cases where the aplastic anemia symptoms become so severe that the patient’s life is threatened, a bone marrow transplant may be required, but that is generally saved as a last resort.