The anemias caused by deficiencies of the vitamins B12 and folic acid show identical bone marrow and peripheral blood changes. Both vitamins are essential for DNA synthesis.
The two main vitamin deficiencies may coexist. In each case, hyperplasia of the bone marrow occurs, and the precursor erythroid and myeloid cells are large and bizarre in appearance. The RBC’s produced are abnormally large (megaloblastic). A pancytopenia (a decrease in all myeloid-derived cells) develops.
Vitamin B12 deficiency can occur from inadequate intake in strict vegetarians; faulty absorption from gastrointestinal tract; absence of intrinsic factor (pernicious anemia); disease involving the ileum or pancreas, which impairs B12 absorption; and gastrectomy. People with pernicious anemia have a higher incidence of gastric ulcer than the general public.
Folic acid deficiency occurs when intake of folate is deficicnet or the requirement is increased. People at risk include those who rarely eat uncooked vegetables or frutis, primarily elderly people living alone or people with alcoholism. Alcohol use, hemolytic anemia, and pregnancy increase folic acid requirements. Patients with malabsoptive or small bowel disease may not absorb folic acid normally.
Symptoms are progressive and may be marked by spontaneous partial remissions and exacerbations.
- Gradual development of signs of anemia (weakness, listlessness, and pallor)
- Possible development of a smooth, sore, red, tongue and mild diarrhea (pernicious anemia)
- Possible development of confusion, more often, paresthesias in the extremities ad difficulty keeping balance, loss of position sense
- Lack of neurologic manifestations with folic acid deficiency alone
- Vitiligo (patchy loss of skin pigmentation) and prematurely graying hair (often seen in pernicious anemia)
- Without treatment, patients die, usually as a result of congestive heart failure from anemia
Assessment and Diagnostic Findings
- Schilling test (primary diagnostic tool)
- Complete blood count (Hgb value as low as 4 to 5 g/dl, WBC count 2,000 to 3,000/mm3, platelet count less than 50,000/mm3, MCV is very high, usually exceeding 110)
- Serum levels of folate and vitamin B12 (folic acid deficiency and deficient vitamin B12)
Medical Management: Vitamin B12 Deficiency
- Oral supplementation with vitamins or fortified soy milk (strict vegetarians)
- Intramuscular injections of vitamin B12 for defective absorption or absence of intrinsic factor
- Prevention of recurrence with lifetime vitamin B12 therapy for patient who has had pernicious anemia or non correctable malabsorption
Medical Management: Folic Acid Deficiency
- Intake of nutritious die and 1 mg folic acid daily
- Intramuscular folic acid for malabsorption syndromes
- Folic acid taken orally as a separate tablet (except prenatal vitamins)
- Folic acid replacement stopped when hemoglobin level returns to normal, with the exception of alcoholics, who continue replacement as along as alcohol intake continues
- Assess patients at risk for megaloblastic anemia for clinical manifestations (eg, inspect the skin, sclera, and mucous membranes for jaundice, note vitiligo or premature graying or smooth, red, sore tongue).
- Perform careful neurologic assessment (eg, note gait and stability; test position and vibration sense).
- Assess need for assistive devices (eg, cane, walkers) ans need for support and guidance in managing activities of daily living and home environment.
- Ensure safety when position sense, coordination, and gait are affected.
- Refer for physical or occupational therapy as needed.
- When sensation is altered, instruct patient to avoid excessive heat and cold.
- Advise patient to prepare bland, soft foods and to eat small amounts frequently.
- Explain that other nutritional deficiencies, such as alcohol-induced anemia, can induce neurologic problems.
- Instruct patient in complete urine collections for the Schilling test. Also explain the importance of the test and of complying with the collection.
- Teach the patient about chronicity of disorder and need for monthly vitamin B12 injections when patient has no symptoms. Instruct patient how to self-administer injections, when appropriate.
- Stress importance of ongoing medical follow-up and screening, because gastric atrophy associated with pernicious anemia increases the risk of gastric carcinoma.
Reference: Joyce Young Johnson, Brunner & Sudddarth’s Textbook of Medical-Surgical Nursing 11th edition Lippincott Williams & Wilkins pp. 45-48