What Is Hemolysis? - Definition, Causes & Symptoms

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  • 0:02 Definition
  • 1:33 Causes and Symptoms
  • 2:23 Diagnosis and Treatment
  • 3:09 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Danielle Haak

Danielle has a PhD in Natural Resource Sciences and a MSc in Biological Sciences

Hemolysis is the destruction of red blood cells before their normal life span is up. Why does this happen? Complete this lesson to learn more about what hemolysis is, why it occurs, the symptoms that develop, and how it's treated.


Lisa has been feeling worn down and tired for a few weeks now. At first, she thought she caught the bug that was going around, but she wasn't getting better. Her husband and coworkers had also commented on how she was looker paler than usual, so she finally decided to go see a doctor. After a physical examination and plenty of blood work, Lisa found out she had hemolysis, due to a streptococcus infection!

So, what is hemolysis? Our blood has four primary components:

  • Red blood cells
  • White blood cells
  • Platelets
  • Plasma

Hemolysis affects the red blood cells, destroying them before their typical life span has been reached. Red blood cells usually last about 120 days before they die. After death, they are removed from circulating blood by the spleen and replaced by new red blood cells produced in bone marrow. However, if the red blood cells are destroyed faster than they can be replaced, an imbalance occurs. When red blood cells burst, hemoglobin, (the part that carries oxygen), is released into the rest of the blood. This can decrease the amount of oxygen the body gets.

When hemolysis occurs and leads to a red blood cell imbalance, it is called hemolytic anemia, and there are two types. The first is called intrinsic hemolytic anemia, and with this type, the red blood cells produced by the body are defective. This type is usually an inherited disorder. The second type is called extrinsic hemolytic anemia, and here, the spleen destroys healthy red blood cells or they are damaged by an infection, tumors, autoimmune disorders, medication, leukemia, or lymphoma.

Causes and Symptoms

Hemolysis is caused by blood disorders, toxins in the body, or an infection. Some specific conditions that can cause hemolysis are hepatitis, Epstein-Barr virus, typhoid fever, sickle cell anemia, E. coli or streptococcus bacteria, leukemia, lymphoma, tumors, penicillin, pain medication, lupus, or Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome. A person with hemolysis will often have pale skin, feel tired, experience weakness, have a fever, and show signs of confusion, dizziness, or lightheadedness. You can see why Lisa initially thought she just had the flu, but she's lucky she went to the doctor to figure out why she didn't feel well. If left untreated, hemolysis can cause thrombosis, chronic kidney disease, pulmonary hypertension, organ damage, anemia, and a decreased quality of life.

Diagnosis and Treatment

As was done with Lisa, hemolysis is usually diagnosed through analysis of a blood sample. Counting each component can inform the doctor if there is an imbalance with new and old red blood cells. New red blood cells are called reticulocytes, and the ratio of new to old is a telling sign of a disorder. It may also be necessary to take a bone marrow biopsy - a sample is removed from the marrow and analyzed for irregularities.

Treating hemolysis depends on the underlying cause; however, blood transfusions, corticosteroid injections, or immune globulin transfusions may all help. If the spleen is at fault, it may be necessary to surgically remove it, though this is done when no other treatments help.

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