Hemolytic anemia is a condition in which red blood cells are destroyed before they reach the end of their normal lifespan. At Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (SCCA), our team of experts provides comprehensive diagnostic and medical care for people with this and other forms of anemia.
What Is Hemolytic Anemia?
Red blood cells are essential for carrying oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. Normally, these cells survive for about four months. The bone marrow makes new red blood cells as needed and releases them into the bloodstream.
In hemolytic anemia, the lifespan of red blood cells is significantly shortened because a mechanism either within the red blood cells or elsewhere in the body destroys the cells. (Destruction of red blood cells is called hemolysis.) As a result, the bone marrow must work harder than usual to replace these cells.
Usually in hemolytic anemia, the bone marrow makes and releases red blood cells as it normally would, but these cells are later destroyed in the bloodstream, spleen, or liver.
Hemolytic anemias can be divided into immune and nonimmune forms.
- Immune hemolytic anemias are caused by antibodies generated by the patient’s own immune system.
- Nonimmune hemolytic anemias may be caused either by defects in the red blood cells (as in thalassemia, sickle cell disease, and hereditary spherocytosis or by factors outside the red blood cells (as when cells are destroyed by a mechanical heart valve).
Symptoms and Diagnosis of Hemolytic Anemia
A doctor may suspect hemolytic anemia based on typical anemia symptoms, such as fatigue or decreased energy, shortness of breath, and pale skin, and the results of a complete physical exam.
The condition is usually confirmed through blood tests. However, diagnosing the type and specific cause of the anemia requires clinical expertise and sophisticated testing methods, some of which are only offered at institutions like SCCA, where there is access to world-class laboratory testing.
Because hemolytic anemia can occur along with an underlying disease, such as lymphoma, doctors may include additional studies, like imaging studies and a bone marrow biopsy (examining a small sample of marrow taken with a hollow needle), to uncover underlying disease.
Hemolytic Anemia Treatment
SCCA’s team of doctors provides a comprehensive range of treatment options for all forms of hemolytic anemia.
The goal of therapy is to increase the red blood cell count to a safe level. Treatment varies depending on the cause of the hemolysis. For example, when the hemolysis is due to an immune system attack on red blood cells, doctors may use steroids, intravenous immune globulin, or surgical removal of the spleen (splenectomy) to slow or stop red blood cell destruction.
Read more about treatment of these nonimmune hemolytic anemias: