Home > Patients & Visitors > Health Library > Thalassemia
Thalassemia (say "thal-uh-SEE-mee-uh") is an inherited blood disorder that causes your body to make less hemoglobin or abnormal hemoglobin. Hemoglobin helps red blood cells spread oxygen through your body. Low levels of hemoglobin may cause anemia, an illness that makes you feel weak and tired. Severe anemia can damage organs and lead to death.
There are two main types: alpha and beta. Beta thalassemia is the most common.
You need both alpha- and beta-globin to make hemoglobin. Beta thalassemia occurs when one or both of the two genes that make beta-globin don't work or only partly work as they should.
This type occurs when one or more of the four alpha-globin genes that make hemoglobin are missing or damaged.
A defect in one or more genes causes thalassemia.
If you, either parent, or any of your siblings have thalassemia or carry a gene for thalassemia and you're thinking about having a child, you may want to talk to a genetic counselor before you get pregnant. A genetic counselor can tell you how likely it is that your child will have the disease and how severe it might be.
Mild thalassemia usually doesn't cause any symptoms.
Moderate or severe disease may cause symptoms of anemia. For example, you may feel weak, tire out more easily, and feel short of breath. Other symptoms also can occur depending on how severe your disease is and what problems it causes.
Children with severe thalassemia may grow slowly (failure to thrive), have skull bones that are not shaped normally, and have problems with feeding, frequent fevers, and diarrhea.
Your doctor will do an exam and ask about your health history. Tests you may need include:
If you learn that you have thalassemia, your family members should to talk to their doctors about testing.
Treatment depends on how severe your condition is.
Most large medical centers have treatment centers for blood disorders. They are an excellent resource to help you and your family get the best care.
If you have repeated blood transfusions, it's possible for your body to get too much iron. This can damage your heart and other organs. Make sure to avoid vitamins that contain iron, and don't take extra vitamin C, which can increase how much iron you absorb from food. If you have too much iron, your doctor may give you chelation therapy. This is a medicine that helps remove iron from your body.
Less common treatments for severe thalassemia include:
Get a flu vaccine each year. Also talk to your doctor about getting a pneumococcal vaccine. These vaccines may protect you from severe infections, which can make anemia worse and cause severe illness in people who have thalassemia.
Other Works Consulted
Borgna-Pignatti C, Galanello R (2009). Thalassemias and related disorders: Quantitative disorders of hemoglobin synthesis. In JP Greer et al., eds., Wintrobe's Clinical Hematology, 12th ed., vol. 1, pp. 1083–1131. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
Hillman R, et al. (2011). Thalassemia. In Hematology in Clinical Practice, 5th ed., pp. 65–78. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Pennell DJ, et al. (2013). Cardiovascular function and treatment in ß-thalassemia major: A consensus statement from the American Heart Association. Circulation, 128(3): 281–308.
Weatherall DJ (2010). The thalassemias: Disorders of globin synthesis. In K Kaushansky et al., eds., Williams Hematology, 8th ed., pp. 675–707. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Current as of: March 28, 2019
Author: Healthwise StaffMedical Review: E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal MedicineAdam Husney, MD - Family MedicineMartin J. Gabica, MD - Family MedicineBrian Leber, MDCM, FRCPC - Hematology
Current as of:
March 28, 2019
Medical Review:E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine & Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine & Martin J. Gabica, MD - Family Medicine & Brian Leber, MDCM, FRCPC - Hematology
To learn more about Healthwise, visit Healthwise.org.
© 1995-2019 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.
Our interactive Decision Points guide you through making key health decisions by combining medical information with your personal information.
You'll find Decision Points to help you answer questions about:
Get started learning more about your health!
Our Interactive Tools can help you make smart decisions for a healthier life. You'll find personal calculators and tools for health and fitness, lifestyle checkups and pregnancy.
Feeling under the weather?
Use our interactive symptom checker to evaluate your symptoms and determine appropriate action or treatment.