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Thalassemia

Thalassemia (thal-uh-SEE-me-uh) is an inherited blood disorder characterized by less hemoglobin and fewer red blood cells in your body than normal. Several types of thalassemia exist, including alpha-thalassemia, beta-thalassemia intermedia, Cooley's anemia and Mediterranean anemia.

Hemoglobin is the substance in your red blood cells that allows them to carry oxygen. The low hemoglobin and fewer red blood cells of thalassemia may cause anemia, leaving you fatigued.

If you have mild thalassemia, you may not need treatment. But, if you have a more severe form of thalassemia, you may need regular blood transfusions. You can also take steps on your own to cope with fatigue, such as choosing a healthy diet and exercising regularly.

Symptoms Causes Risk factors Complications Prevention

Thalassemia symptoms include:

  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Pale appearance
  • Yellow discoloration of skin (jaundice)
  • Facial bone deformities
  • Slow growth
  • Abdominal swelling
  • Dark urine

The signs and symptoms you experience depend on the type and severity of thalassemia you have. Some babies show signs and symptoms of thalassemia at birth, while others may develop signs or symptoms during the first two years of life. Some people who have only one affected hemoglobin gene don't experience any thalassemia symptoms.

When to see a doctor

Make an appointment with your child's doctor for an evaluation if he or she has any signs or symptoms that worry you.

Thalassemia is caused by mutations in the DNA of cells that make hemoglobin — the substance in your red blood cells that carries oxygen throughout your body. The mutations associated with thalassemia are passed from parents to children.

The mutations that cause thalassemia disrupt the normal production of hemoglobin and cause low hemoglobin levels and a high rate of red blood cell destruction, causing anemia. When you're anemic, your blood doesn't have enough red blood cells to carry oxygen to your tissues — leaving you fatigued.

Types of thalassemia

The type of thalassemia you have depends on the number of gene mutations you inherit from your parents and which part of the hemoglobin molecule is affected by the mutations. The more mutated genes, the more severe your thalassemia. Hemoglobin molecules are made of alpha and beta parts that can be affected by mutations.

Alpha-thalassemia

Four genes are involved in making the alpha hemoglobin chain. You get two from each of your parents. If you inherit:

  • One mutated gene, you'll have no signs or symptoms of thalassemia. But, you are a carrier of the disease and can pass it on to your children.
  • Two mutated genes, your thalassemia signs and symptoms will be mild. This condition may be called alpha-thalassemia minor, or you may be told you have an alpha-thalassemia trait.
  • Three mutated genes, your signs and symptoms will be moderate to severe. This condition is also called hemoglobin H disease.
  • Four mutated genes, the condition is called alpha-thalassemia major or hydrops fetalis. It usually causes a fetus to die before delivery or a newborn to die shortly after birth.

Beta-thalassemia

Two genes are involved in making the beta hemoglobin chain. You get one from each of your parents. If you inherit:

  • One mutated gene, you'll have mild signs and symptoms. This condition is called beta-thalassemia minor or referred to as a beta-thalassemia trait.
  • Two mutated genes, your signs and symptoms will be moderate to severe. This condition is called beta-thalassemia major, which is also known as Cooley's anemia. Babies born with two defective beta hemoglobin genes usually are healthy at birth, but develop signs and symptoms within the first two years of life. A milder form, called beta-thalassemia intermedia, also may occur with two mutated genes.

Factors that increase your risk of thalassemia include:

  • Family history of thalassemia. Thalassemia is passed from parents to children through mutated hemoglobin genes. If you have a family history of thalassemia, you may have an increased risk of the condition.
  • Certain ancestry. Thalassemia occurs most often in people of Italian, Greek, Middle Eastern, Asian and African ancestry.

Possible complications of thalassemia include:

  • Iron overload. People with thalassemia can get too much iron in their bodies, either from the disease itself or from frequent blood transfusions. Too much iron can result in damage to your heart, liver and endocrine system, which includes glands that produce hormones that regulate processes throughout your body.
  • Infection. People with thalassemia have an increased risk of infection. This is especially true if you've had your spleen removed.

In cases of severe thalassemia, the following complications can occur:

  • Bone deformities. Thalassemia can make your bone marrow expand, which causes your bones to widen. This can result in abnormal bone structure, especially in your face and skull. Bone marrow expansion also makes bones thin and brittle, increasing the chance of broken bones.
  • Enlarged spleen (splenomegaly). The spleen helps your body fight infection and filter unwanted material, such as old or damaged blood cells. Thalassemia is often accompanied by the destruction of a large number of red blood cells, making your spleen work harder than normal, causing your spleen to enlarge. Splenomegaly can make anemia worse, and it can reduce the life of transfused red blood cells. If your spleen grows too big, it may need to be removed.
  • Slowed growth rates. Anemia can cause a child's growth to slow. Puberty also may be delayed in children with thalassemia.
  • Heart problems. Heart problems, such as congestive heart failure and abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias), may be associated with severe thalassemia.

In most cases, thalassemia can't be prevented. If you have thalassemia, or if you carry a thalassemia gene, consider talking with a genetic counselor for guidance before you have or father a child.

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