Doctors diagnose thalassemias using blood tests, including a complete blood count (CBC) and special hemoglobin tests.
Moderate and severe thalassemias usually are diagnosed in early childhood. This is because signs and symptoms, including severe anemia, often occur within the first 2 years of life.
People who have milder forms of thalassemia might be diagnosed after a routine blood test shows they have anemia. Doctors might suspect thalassemia if a person has anemia and is a member of an ethnic group that's at increased risk for thalassemias. (For more information, go to "Who Is at Risk for Thalassemias?")
Doctors also test the amount of iron in the blood to find out whether the anemia is due to iron deficiency or thalassemia. Iron-deficiency anemia occurs if the body doesn't have enough iron to make hemoglobin. The anemia in thalassemia occurs because of a problem with either the alpha globin or beta globin chains of hemoglobin, not because of a lack of iron.
Because thalassemias are passed from parents to children through genes, family genetic studies also can help diagnose the disorder. These studies involve taking a family medical history and doing blood tests on family members. The tests will show whether any family members have missing or altered hemoglobin genes.
If you know of family members who have thalassemias and you're thinking of having children, consider talking with your doctor and a genetic counselor. They can help determine your risk for passing the disorder to your children.
If you're expecting a baby and you and your partner are thalassemia carriers, you may want to consider prenatal testing.
Prenatal testing involves taking a sample of amniotic fluid or tissue from the placenta. (Amniotic fluid is the fluid in the sac surrounding a growing embryo. The placenta is the organ that attaches the umbilical cord to the mother's womb.) Tests done on the fluid or tissue can show whether your baby has thalassemia and how severe it might be.
Clinical trials are research studies that explore whether a medical strategy, treatment, or device is safe and effective for humans. To find clinical trials that are currently underway for Thalassemias, visit www.clinicaltrials.gov.
Visit Children and Clinical Studies to hear experts, parents, and children talk about their experiences with clinical research.
September 2, 2014
Gary H. Gibbons
Researcher Brings Medicine One Step Closer to Widely Available Cure for Sickle Cell Disease
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.