The red blood cells are the parts of the blood that move oxygen throughout the body, and red blood cell diseases interfere with this vital, life-sustaining process. Some diseases, such as the various types of anemia, greatly impair the red blood cells' ability to carry oxygen. Other red blood cell diseases impact other critical components of the red blood cells, such as hemochromatosis, which affects the amount of hemoglobin in the cells.
Anemia is one of the most common of the red blood cell diseases. There are several hundred types of anemia, but they share similar symptoms and function. This condition occurs when there is not enough oxygen reaching the organs and tissues of the body. It can be caused by not enough red blood cells in the bloodstream or a deficiency within the cells themselves. In some cases, anemia is caused by internal bleeding and the loss of red blood cells through ulcers or other similar lesions in the system.
Sickle cell anemia is a specific kind of anemia that typically only occurs in individuals of African descent. In this inherited condition, red blood cells are misshapen. This impacts their ability to carry oxygen to the organs, and also causes them to form clots easily. The red blood cells of individuals with sickle cell have a short lifespan of only between 10 and 20 days, as opposed to the three-month life span of normal cells. When cells die this quickly, the body's bone marrow cannot make enough cells to keep up with the loss, resulting in low cell counts.
While anemia can occur with too few red blood cells, polycythemia vera is a condition in which there are too many red blood cells. This process begins in the bone marrow, where the cells are made, and eventually spreads throughout the system until there are too many white blood cells and platelets as well. When there are too many red blood cells, the blood becomes abnormally thick and can easily clot in the blood vessels, blocking the flow of blood and oxygen. Blood tests can detect this condition before symptoms such as reddening skin, weakness, and itching begin to develop.
Hemoglobin is the part of the red blood cells that actually carries the oxygen from one part of the body to the other. The body uses iron in order to make hemoglobin, but an excess of iron can cause damage to the heart and liver in a condition called hemochromatosis. This is one of the many red blood cell diseases commonly passed down through families. Thalassemia is another of the red blood cell diseases that impacts the development of hemoglobin, and causes the body to make less hemoglobin than what is needed. This severely impacts the ability of red blood cells to carry oxygen.