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Am Fam Physician. 2009;80(4):371

See related article on thalassemia.

What is thalassemia?

Thalassemia (THAL-uh-SEE-me-uh) is an inherited blood disorder that affects the types of hemoglobin your body makes. Hemoglobin is the part of your red blood cells that carries oxygen. There are two types of thalassemia: alpha and beta.

What are the symptoms?

It depends on what type of thalassemia you have and how bad it is. If you have a milder form, you may not have any symptoms. If you have a more severe form, you may have anemia (not enough red blood cells) or other serious health problems (for example, heart disease). Some people with the severe form can die in early adulthood.

How is it treated?

If you have a milder form, you may not need treatment. If you have severe anemia, you may need regular blood transfusions. A blood transfusion is a process to transfer blood from one person to another to replace blood that is lost through an injury, surgery, or in this case, a disease.

Children with more severe forms of thalassemia may need blood transfusions starting as early as six months of age. Because the body has no way to remove the iron from transfused red blood cells, extra iron often builds up, especially in the liver and heart. To remove the extra iron, these children will need to take medicine regularly. Some children can be cured of thalassemia with a bone marrow transplant. Others may need treatment their whole life.

How can I prevent it?

Before starting a family, people with thalassemia or with a family history of thalassemia can get genetic counseling to find out their risk of having a child with severe thalassemia.

Where can I get more information?

Your doctor

American Academy of Family Physicians

Cooley's Anemia Foundation

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