Some patients may need periodic red cell or platelet transfusions to improve blood cell counts and help alleviate symptoms. People who have ongoing transfusions may be at risk for "iron overload" — the term for a condition that, if untreated, can damage the heart and liver. Red cells contain iron, and patients who have regular transfusions that range from less than two units to four or more units of blood a month can accumulate too much iron in their bodies as a result.
Your doctor's decision to give you red cell transfusions is based on a combination of factors, including:
- The level of hemoglobin (the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen) in your blood
- Whether you have symptoms such as fatigue or shortness of breath
- Any other health conditions you may have, such as heart disease
If you're receiving transfusions, your doctor may monitor you for iron overload with a blood test called a serum ferritin level, which measures your body's iron store. You may need a drug called an iron chelator to remove excess iron from your body because of transfusion-dependent anemias. Be sure to talk with your doctor about the potential benefits and risks of using these drugs.