Mature red blood cells are just basically
bags of hemoglobin, so the cells themselves
don’t have much “function” even though they are
extremely important. As you probably know,
hemoglobin carries oxygen to our cells and
carries some of the carbon dioxide away from
cells. A person who is having problems with
their red cells can’t get enough oxygen and will
be tired, feel breathless, and may have less
color. For example, a person with light skin
will look pale. In a person with dark skin, you
can still see less color, especially in places
like the gums.
If a person does not get enough iron, they
can’t make enough hemoglobin (which contains
iron). This is a the most common form of
anemia. “Anemia” means not having enough of a
Hemoglobin can malfunction. In sickle-cell
disease, hemoglobin does something odd. When it
has given up oxygen, it changes shape, changing
the shape of red blood cells. A sickle is a
curved blade that used to be used to harvest
crops. The oddly-shaped blood cells of people
with this disease reminded someone of sickles.
Normal red blood cells are shaped like a
Lifesaver that doesn’t quite have a hole in the
middle. These can squeeze through our smallest
blood vessels (capillaries) pretty easily. With
sickle-cell disease, the cells can get stuck in
the small blood vessels. All of the
cells “downstream” from the blockage are then
starved for oxygen and nutrients and die.
Sickle-cell disease is genetic.
There are other diseases that can cause a
person to have problems with their red blood
cells. There are a few different problems
lumped together to mean that red blood cells are
being destroyed. These problems are types
of “Hemolytic anemia.” “Hemo” means
blood. “Lysis” means breakdown. The body
should destroy red blood cells that are 3 or 4
months old and worn out. But sometimes the body
attacks healthy cells. Some infections attack
red blood cells. When people run or march long
distances, or play drums for a long time, or do
other things that cause a lot of pounding, blood
cells can get broken up. These are all causes
of hemolytic anemia.
Some people do not make enough red blood
cells because of a problem in their bone
Other diseases include having sphere-shaped
red blood cells, too many red blood cells, or
too much iron in the blood.
Why do you think having too many red blood
cells would cause a problem? If you want a
hint, look up why “blood doping” is a dangerous
practice that is outlawed in many sports.
Thanks for asking.
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