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What is Asplenia?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 23 August 2016
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"Asplenia" means absence of spleen or splenic functioning. This condition can be congenital or occur at birth, or it may happen later in life if spleen functioning somehow fails or if the spleen needs to be removed. The challenge of this situation at any time in life is that it makes people much more vulnerable to infection. In order to manage this, preventative antibiotics are usually needed and must be taken on a daily basis. Special protocol might also exist if the person with asplenia is exposed to serious illnesses or requires surgery.

Congenital asplenia is usually present with heart defects. Though rare, a condition called heterotaxy is one of the main causes. Heterotaxy is further separated into right and left atrial isomerism. In left atrial isomerism, the body may have many small spleens, and these may function well enough to confer some immunity. Surgery is usually still needed in early childhood to repair conditions such as holes between the ventricles (ventricular septal defects), or narrowing of the pulmonary valve.

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Right atrial isomerism is more severe, with more significant heart defects and complete asplenia. Heart defects associated with this condition include atrioventricular canal, though others can be present. With both forms of heterotaxy the heart has looped in the wrong direction when forming, and is abnormally placed. Other organs can be misarranged too, in addition to the body missing a spleen or having too many of them. It should be noted that asplenia may occasionally be congenital without heart defects.

There are a few reasons why people might acquire asplenia. The more obvious is that the spleen needs to be removed at some point in life, due to accident or trauma, or occasionally due to an elected treatment to deal with certain blood disorders like thalassemia. Some serious illnesses can also destroy the spleen, and though it may be present, it may no longer function properly. One example of this is sickle cell anemia, which can target the spleen and basically cause its death.

The degree to which a missing spleen alone provides problems is not always possible to predict. In many cases people do quite well by taking simple antibiotics like amoxicillin each day. It’s usually highly advised that people with asplenia get vaccinations, though it might inadvisable for them to use live active forms of vaccines. Doctors may also recommend additional antibiotics for use when colds or flus occur, and people with heterotaxy will especially need antibiotic prophylaxis prior to dental work.

The main concern with taking so many antibiotics is that they may cease to be effective and people could then get infections that are harder to treat. At the same that asplenia’s main treatment is usually antibiotics, it’s still important to use antibiotics wisely. It can be said, though, that many people with this condition have healthy lives and very few limits on their behavior.

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