Living with Aplastic Anemia

Aplastic anemia is a rare blood disorder that may be diagnosed in children, teens, and young adults. It happens when bone marrow, the spongy tissue inside bones, doesn’t produce enough red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. Red blood cells carry oxygen through the bloodstream to all areas of the body. White blood cells fight infections, and platelets help blood clot if bleeding starts.

Anatomy of  a bone, showing blood cells
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Why some children have this bone marrow problem is usually not known, but symptoms develop when blood cells aren’t replaced fast enough. Red blood cells live for about 120 days. Platelets live for about 6 days, and white blood cells live for less than a day.

What are the symptoms and treatment of aplastic anemia?

If your child's red blood cell count gets too low, he or she may tire easily. Bleeding may occur if platelets are low, and infections may develop if white cells are low.

These are symptoms of aplastic anemia:

  • Bruising or bleeding

  • Fever

  • Weakness

  • Pale skin

  • Rapid heart rate

  • Shortness of breath

  • Skin rash

Treatment for aplastic anemia will depend on the age of the child and how severe the anemia is. Treatments often need to be repeated, and sometimes several types of treatment may be tried in order to find the one that works best.

Your child's treatment may be managed by a hematologist, a blood specialist. Treatments may include blood transfusions, drugs to stimulate blood cell production, and replacement of poorly functioning bone marrow with healthy bone marrow from a donor.

Helping your child live with aplastic anemia

During and between treatments, it’s important to prevent complications of aplastic anemia caused by infections, bleeding, or fatigue. This is especially important when blood cell counts are low.

Here are some basic tips to keep in mind:

  • Safe nutrition. It’s important for your child to eat a balanced diet. Because your child may be at risk for foodborne infections, he or she may need to avoid aged cheeses and unpasteurized beverages, as well as undercooked or raw foods. Make sure to wash and peel fresh fruits and vegetables before serving. It’s a good idea to stay away from salad bars and restaurant buffets.

  • Safe exercise. Regular exercise and playtime is important, and so is resting between activities. If your child gets short of breath when active, let your healthcare provider know. Because your child may be at risk for bleeding, infection, and fatigue, contact sports are usually discouraged. You should also avoid public pools and hot tubs, especially if your child’s skin has any open cuts or scrapes.

  • Preventing infection. Make sure your child gets a flu shot and ask your healthcare provider about other preventive vaccines. Avoid crowds and sick friends or relatives, especially during cold and flu season. Remind your child — and the rest of the family — to wash hands frequently. Regular dental care will help prevent tooth and gum infections.

Learn as much as you can about aplastic anemia and work closely with your child's hematologist and treatment team. Also remember that a serious and recurrent illness like aplastic anemia is stressful for both you and your child. Make sure you both get the support you need. If you or your child is struggling with anxiety or depression, talk with your healthcare provider. Individual counseling, family counseling, or a support group can help.