Medical science has developed in recent years to such an extent that the average person in the street could probably talk confidently about a few health issues and their treatment options. In the last several months, this has probably only increased, as pandemic responses have made us all evaluate our own vulnerabilities. Nonetheless, there are still conditions that affect more than a few people, and which most of us could not name. Of these, pernicious anemia is one that absolutely merits more of a focus.
You may hear pernicious anemia referred to as a “vitamin B12 deficiency”; while this is true, it is somewhat of an oversimplification. To better understand this autoimmune condition, and why we should focus more on it, let’s get into some of the facts.
So, what exactly is pernicious anemia?
As indicated above, this condition is a deficiency in vitamin B12. More specifically, it is the deficiency that arises when our bodies do not have enough of a compound known as “intrinsic factor” (IF), which allows us to absorb the vitamin and other nutrients.
How do you know if you have it?
The first clinical indication that an individual has pernicious anemia will usually be a low marker for B12 on standard blood tests. Follow-up tests for intrinsic factor can confirm that the cause of the deficiency is as expected, and will be enough for a diagnosis of pernicious anemia.
How serious is it?
Left unchecked, the damage that can be done by pernicious anemia is very serious indeed. Initially, the symptoms include tiredness, depression, and headaches. If it progresses, there are signs that it increases the risk of organ damage, certain cancers (particularly stomach cancer), and even dementia. Without treatment, eventually pernicious anemia can be fatal
What should I be looking out for?
That’s the tricky thing. “Pernicious” means causing damage over a prolonged spell; this form of anemia can do a lot of damage because many of its unpleasant effects can be put down to everyday causes. Symptoms may be as banal as fatigue and clumsiness. You may find yourself becoming irritable more easily, or experience the phenomenon known as “brain fog”. More noticeable symptoms include mouth ulcers, nerve and muscle pain or diarrhea – but you shouldn’t wait for those to occur before seeking help.
Do I need to go through all those tests?
In truth, the process of diagnosis can be a long and – depending on your insurance – expensive one. At the end of it, the treatment is typically a course of B12 injections or oral supplements, and this does not require you to have a diagnosis. It is still essential to discuss the matter with your doctor before embarking on any treatment plan, because unilaterally self-treating carries its own, considerable risks. However, a good doctor will usually be flexible on treatment in these situations.
The signs of pernicious anemia are often subtle, but once you start to notice them they can become difficult to ignore. If you suspect that you may have the condition, do make sure to make an appointment with your doctor and get checked out.