Here are a few great questions about megaloblastic anemia I received by email.

Megaloblastic vs. macrocytic

Q. Do I have to say “megaloblastic macrocytic” anemia? Aren’t megaloblastic and macrocytic the same thing?

A. Macrocytic refers to the size of the mature red cells in the blood. It means that the red cells are big. Normal is 80-100 femtoliters. If the red cells are over 100, they’re macrocytic; if they’re under 80, they’re microcytic.

Megaloblastic refers to the weird morphologic changes (immature nucleus, mature cytoplasm, large overall size) you see in red cell precursors (and, to some extent in neutrophil precursors), in patients who are B12 deficient. So the term is really referring to the cells in the bone marrow, not mature, circulating red cells. However, you can also see changes in the blood that indicate megaloblastic anemia, the most common of which is hypersegmented neutrophils (like the one above).

So the terms are not equivalent.

That being said, you don’t need to say both terms if you have a megaloblastic anemia, because all megaloblastic anemias are also macrocytic. You just say “megaloblastic anemia.”

Conversely, if you just say “macrocytic anemia,” that doesn’t say anything about whether there are megloblastic changes present or not! It just says: there’s an anemia, and the red cells are big.

Non-megaloblastic anemia

Q. What really is non-megaloblastic anemia? Because my lectures have mentioned it but I’m not sure what it really is.

A. Non-megaloblastic anemia just means an anemia without megaloblastic changes – and technically, that encompasses every single anemia except megaloblastic anemia! But really, when people say non-megaloblastic anemia, they’re usually referring to a macrocytic anemia (one in which the red cells are large, over 100 femtoliters) without megaloblastic changes (funny looking red cells). This type of anemia can be seen in liver failure and in myelodysplasia.

Pernicious anemia and megaloblastic anemia

Q. I don’t understand the difference between pernicious anemia and megaloblastic anemia. Pernicious anemia is just a deficiency in intrinsic factor that helps with absorption of B12…so patients have low B12 levels. But how is that different from megaloblastic anemia?

A. The best way to think about these two terms is: pernicious anemia is one cause of megaloblastic anemia.

Megaloblastic anemia is a type of anemia in which you get weird morphologic changes (megaloblasts, hypersegmented neutrophils, oval macrocytes) due to a lack of B12 and/or folate. There are lots of things that can cause a lack of B12 and/or folate…so when you see a case of megaloblastic anemia, you have to investigate to find out what the cause is.

Pernicious anemia (in which patients can’t absorb B12 due to a lack of intrinsic factor) is one cause. Another cause is folate-depleting drugs (like chemotherapy drugs); another is dietary deficiency.

It’s kind of confusing because they put the term “anemia” in pernicious anemia – so it makes it sound like pernicious anemia is a category in and of itself. It’s not – it just falls under the heading of megaloblastic anemia.