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.
Hemoglobin is made of two proteins: Alpha globin and beta globin. Thalassemia occurs when there is a defect in a gene that helps control production of one of these proteins.
Thalassemia minor usually does not cause any symptoms. If it does, it causes only minor anemia.
Beta thalassemia comes in two serious types: thalassemia major (also called Cooley’s anemia) and thalassemia intermedia.
The symptoms of thalassemia major (Cooley’s anemia) generally appear before a child’s second birthday. The severe anemia related to this condition can be life-threatening. Other symptoms include:
This form of thalassemia is usually so severe that it requires regular blood transfusions.
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.
People who have mild or minor forms of thalassemia can typically lead normal lives.
Other forms of thalassemia may lead to a shortened life span if not properly treated.