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Hemolytic anemia


What is hemolytic anemia?

Hemolytic (HEE mah lih tik) anemia is a condition in which red blood cells are destroyed and removed from the bloodstream sooner than they should be. This causes anemia (low red blood cell levels). A red blood cell normally lives for about 120 days.  In patients with hemolytic anemia, the red blood cells live for only 30 days or less. The breakdown of red blood cells is called hemolysis (hee MAL uh sis).

Why does this happen?

Most hemolytic anemias are inherited, which means passed down from parent to child. Sometimes your child will be the first person in the family to have this problem. It is also possible that your child might pass it on to his children.

Types of hemolytic anemia

  • Membrane disorders (such as spherocytosis, elliptocytosis) – The red blood cells have an abnormal cell membrane causing them to be different shapes. They are easily destroyed or damaged, which leads to anemia. 
  • Enzyme deficiencies (such as pyruvate kinase deficiency) – The red blood cells are missing an enzyme that helps them live. Without the enzyme, the red blood cells break down, causing anemia.
  • Hemoglobin (HEE muh glow bin) diseases (such as sickle cell anemia, thalassemia, hemoglobin C disease) – Normally, hemoglobin carries oxygen to all body parts. In these disorders, hemoglobin is not made normally. The red blood cells in these disorders may only live for 10–20 days, which leads to low red blood cell counts.   

What are the symptoms of hemolytic anemia?

Anemia – the red blood cell count is lower than normal. If your child develops an infection like a cold or virus, the anemia can become worse and your child may need to see the doctor. Rarely, your child might need a blood transfusion. 

Jaundice - When the red blood cells break down, some of the cell contents are changed into bilirubin (bil ih ROO bin). Jaundice (yellowing of the skin or eyes) occurs because of the increase in bilirubin. Jaundice may appear or increase at times of illness.

Enlarged spleen - The spleen is an organ located on the left side of the belly. The main function of the spleen is to filter the blood. When abnormal red blood cells travel through the spleen they can get trapped and broken down, which causes the spleen to grow in size. If needed, the spleen can be removed by surgery (called a splenectomy) to improve the red blood cell count. 

Gallstones - Gallstones are made of bilirubin. Some patients develop gallstones and might need their gallbladder removed by surgery if the stones cause stomach pain or other symptoms. 

Is there treatment for hemolytic anemia?

There is no medicine that can make the red blood cells become normal again. Most people will do fine without any treatment, but sometimes blood transfusions or splenectomy may be needed.

When should I call the doctor?

If your child looks pale, has increased jaundice, or is more tired than usual, you should call the doctor. A blood count test might be needed to see if the level of red blood cells has decreased. 


If you have questions or concerns about hemolytic anemia, please call the Hematology Clinic at 901-595-5041. If you are calling after hours or on the weekend, dial 901-595-3300 and ask for the nursing coordinator or the doctor on call. If you are outside the Memphis area, dial toll-free 1-866-2STJUDE (1-866-278-5833) and press 0 when the call connects.


This document is not intended to take the place of the care and attention of your personal physician or other professional medical services. Our aim is to promote active participation in your care and treatment by providing information and education. Questions about individual health concerns or specific treatment options should be discussed with your physician.

St. Jude complies with health care-related federal civil rights laws and does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, age, disability, or sex.

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