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What Is Pernicious Anemia?

Pernicious anemia (per-NISH-us uh-NEE-me-uh) is a condition in which the body can't make enough healthy red blood cells because it doesn't have enough vitamin B12.

Vitamin B12 is a nutrient found in some foods. The body needs this nutrient to make healthy red blood cells and to keep its nervous system working properly.

People who have pernicious anemia can't absorb enough vitamin B12 from food. This is because they lack intrinsic (in-TRIN-sik) factor, a protein made in the stomach. A lack of this protein leads to vitamin B12 deficiency.

Other conditions and factors also can cause vitamin B12 deficiency. Examples include infections, surgery, medicines, and diet. Technically, the term "pernicious anemia" refers to vitamin B12 deficiency due to a lack of intrinsic factor. Often though, vitamin B12 deficiency due to other causes also is called pernicious anemia.

This article discusses pernicious anemia due to a lack of intrinsic factor and other causes.

Overview

Pernicious anemia is a type of anemia. The term "anemia" usually refers to a condition in which the blood has a lower than normal number of red blood cells. In pernicious anemia, the body can't make enough healthy red blood cells because it doesn't have enough vitamin B12.

Without enough vitamin B12, your red blood cells don't divide normally and are too large. They may have trouble getting out of the bone marrow—a sponge-like tissue inside the bones where blood cells are made.

Without enough red blood cells to carry oxygen to your body, you may feel tired and weak. Severe or long-lasting pernicious anemia can damage the heart, brain, and other organs in the body.

Pernicious anemia also can cause other problems, such as nerve damage, neurological problems (such as memory loss), and digestive tract problems. People who have pernicious anemia also may be at higher risk for weakened bone strength and stomach cancer.

Outlook

The term “pernicious” means “deadly.”  The condition is called pernicious anemia because it often was fatal in the past, before vitamin B12 treatments were available. Now, pernicious anemia usually is easy to treat with vitamin B12 pills or shots.

With ongoing care and proper treatment, most people who have pernicious anemia can recover, feel well, and live normal lives.

Without treatment, pernicious anemia can lead to serious problems with the heart, nerves, and other parts of the body. Some of these problems may be permanent.

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April 01, 2011 Last Updated Icon

The NHLBI updates Health Topics articles on a biennial cycle based on a thorough review of research findings and new literature. The articles also are updated as needed if important new research is published. The date on each Health Topics article reflects when the content was originally posted or last revised.

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