Anemia in Children

Anemia is a common blood disorder that occurs when a child has too few healthy red blood cells. Red blood cells are important because they deliver oxygen to all parts of the body through a protein inside each cell called hemoglobin. Without enough oxygen, your child can feel very tired, weak, and their organs and tissues can be damaged. 

Remarkable Care for Kids

  • Expertise in treating blood disorders: Pediatric hematologists at Rush University Children’s Hospital specialize in treating children with blood disorders and provide an expert level of care for kids and families. Many are involved in clinical and laboratory research and have access to the most advanced treatments and most current clinical trials.
  • Clinical research: Clinician-researchers at Rush are involved in clinical trials and research studies that may open the door to new effective treatments for the different types of anemia and other blood disorders.
  • Care close to home: Pediatric hematologists from Rush University Children’s Hospital are available to see patients at our Rush campus in Chicago, Rush Copley Medical Center in Aurora and satellite locations in Joliet and Hoffman Estates.

What is anemia in children?

Anemia occurs when your child’s body is destroying, losing or not producing red blood cells quickly enough. Anemia is common in toddlers and teens when rapid growth spurts require more iron and other nutrients than normal.

There are many causes of anemia in children, including genetics, diets low in iron or vitamin B12, infections, some types of cancer, and medication-related medical treatments.

Types of anemia in children

There are many types of anemia — ranging from common to rare:

Aplastic anemia

Your child’s bone marrow does not make enough new red blood cells.

Hemolytic anemia

Your child’s body destroys red blood cells faster than normal and your child’s bone marrow can’t produce new replacement cells fast enough. 

Iron-deficiency anemia (most common)

Your child’s body lacks enough iron to make hemoglobin because their diet needs more iron, their body is not absorbing iron, or because they are losing blood in some way (e.g., bleeding, menstruation).

Refractory anemia

Your child’s bone marrow can’t make red blood cells, even though it has all the nutrients and vitamins it needs.

Sickle cell anemia

Your child’s bone marrow makes abnormal hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying protein in red blood cells. Normally round and flexible, these abnormal cells are sticky, stiff, fragile and curved like a sickle. They clog blood vessels and prevent proper oxygen flow, causing painful episodes and other complications.

Thalassemias

A group of blood disorders (that you can pass to your child), which cause your child’s bone marrow to make abnormal hemoglobin.  Symptoms depend on the type and severity, but may cause your child’s body to not make enough red blood cells or hemoglobin.

Symptoms of anemia in children

  • Feeling tired or weak
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Pale skin

Care for children with anemia at Rush

Anemia diagnosis

Make an appointment with your child’s pediatrician if your child is experiencing symptoms of anemia.

Your child’s doctor will ask about symptoms, medications, diet and family history as well as order a complete blood count test. And if those tests reveal anemia, your child’s doctor may order additional tests to determine the cause. Your pediatrician may also refer your child to a pediatric hematologist at Rush who specializes in blood disorders.

Anemia treatment

The first steps for treatment are to identify the causes of your child’s anemia, and then determine the best way to manage it — which often includes getting your child’s red blood cell count or hemoglobin levels back to normal, if possible.

Your child’s treatment will depend what’s causing the anemia and the type and severity of the anemia. Treatment may include one or some of the following:

  • Dietary adjustments and supplements may help address an iron or vitamin deficiency
  • Medications may prevent your child’s body from destroying red blood cells or help the marrow to make more
  • Blood transfusions can give your child healthy red blood cells if their anemia is severe
  • Bone marrow or stem cell transplants help your child’s body make more healthy red blood cells and may be used to treat specific severe anemias
  • Surgery may be needed to stop internal bleeding
  • Spleen removal surgery may be needed if your child has an enlarged or diseased spleen that is causing anemia