Thalassemia is a blood disorder passed down through families (inherited) in which the body makes an abnormal form of hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen. The disorder results in large numbers of red blood cells being destroyed, which leads to anemia.
Persons with the minor form of alpha and beta thalassemia have small red blood cells but no symptoms.
Exams and Tests
Your doctor will do a physical exam to look for an enlarged spleen.
A blood sample will be sent to a laboratory to be tested.
Red blood cells will appear small and abnormally shaped when looked at under a microscope.
A complete blood count (CBC) reveals anemia.
A test called hemoglobin electrophoresis shows the presence of an abnormal form of hemoglobin.
A test called mutational analysis can help detect alpha thalassemia.
Treatment for thalassemia major often involves regular blood transfusions and folate supplements.
If you receive blood transfusions, you should not take iron supplements. Doing so can cause a high amount of iron to build up in the body, which can be harmful.
Persons who receive a lot of blood transfusions need a treatment called chelation therapy. This is done to remove excess iron from the body.
A bone marrow transplant may help treat the disease in some patients, especially children.
Severe thalassemia can cause early death (between ages 20 and 30) due to heart failure. Getting regular blood transfusions and therapy to remove iron from the body helps improve the outcome.
Less severe forms of thalassemia often do not shorten lifespan.
You may want to seek genetic counseling if you have a family history of the condition and are thinking of having children.
Untreated, thalassemia major leads to heart failure and liver problems. It also makes a person more likely to develop infections.
Blood transfusions can help control some symptoms, but carry a risk of side effects from too much iron.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call with your health care provider if:
You or your child has symptoms of thalassemia
You are being treated for the disorder and new symptoms develop
Giardina PJ, Forget BG. Thalassemia syndromes. In: Hoffman R, Benz EJ, Shattil SS, et al., eds. Hematology: Basic Principles and Practice. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier Churchill Livingstone; 2008:chap 41.
DeBaun MR, Frei-Jones M, Vichinsky E. Hemoglobinopathies. In: Kliegman RM, Behrman RE, Jenson HB, Stanton BF, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 19th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 456.
Todd Gersten, MD, Hematology/Oncology, Florida Cancer Specialists & Research Institute, Wellington, FL. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.