Anemia is a decrease in the total amount of red blood cells (RBCs) or hemoglobin in the blood, or a lowered ability of the blood to carry oxygen. When anemia comes on slowly, the symptoms are often vague and may include feeling tired, weakness, shortness of breath or a poor ability to exercise. Anemia that comes on quickly often has greater symptoms, which may include confusion, feeling like one is going to pass out, loss of consciousness, or increased thirst. Anemia must be significant before a person becomes noticeably pale. Additional symptoms may occur depending on the underlying cause.

Anemia goes undetected in many people and symptoms can be minor. The symptoms can be related to an underlying cause or the anemia itself. Most commonly, people with anemia report feelings of weakness or fatigue, and sometimes poor concentration. They may also report shortness of breath on exertion. In very severe anemia, the body may compensate for the lack of oxygen-carrying capability of the blood by increasing cardiac output. The patient may have symptoms related to this, such as palpitations, angina (if pre-existing heart disease is present), intermittent claudication of the legs, and symptoms of heart failure. On examination, the signs exhibited may include pallor (pale skin, lining mucosa, conjunctiva and nail beds), but this is not a reliable sign. A blue coloration of the sclera may be noticed in some cases of iron-deficiency anemia. There may be signs of specific causes of anemia, e.g., koilonychia (in iron deficiency), jaundice (when anemia results from abnormal break down of red blood cells in hemolytic anemia), bone deformities (found in thalassemia major) or leg ulcers (seen in sickle-cell disease). In severe anemia, there may be signs of a hyperdynamic circulation: tachycardia (a fast heart rate), bounding pulse, flow murmurs, and cardiac ventricular hypertrophy (enlargement). There may be signs of heart failure. Pica, the consumption of non-food items such as ice, but also paper, wax, or grass, and even hair or dirt, may be a symptom of iron deficiency, although it occurs often in those who have normal levels of hemoglobin. Chronic anemia may result in behavioral disturbances in children as a direct result of impaired neurological development in infants, and reduced academic performance in children of school age. Restless legs syndrome is more common in those with iron-deficiency anemia.

There are a number of definitions of anemia; reviews provide comparison and contrast of them. A strict but broad definition is an absolute decrease in red blood cell mass, however, a broader definition is a lowered ability of the blood to carry oxygen. An operational definition is a decrease in whole-blood hemoglobin concentration of more than 2 standard deviations below the mean of an age- and sex-matched reference range.

Anemia is typically diagnosed on a complete blood count. Apart from reporting the number of red blood cells and the hemoglobin level, the automatic counters also measure the size of the red blood cells by flow cytometry, which is an important tool in distinguishing between the causes of anemia. Examination of a stained blood smear using a microscope can also be helpful, and it is sometimes a necessity in regions of the world where automated analysis is less accessible.

A dimorphic appearance on a peripheral blood smear occurs when there are two simultaneous populations of red blood cells, typically of different size and hemoglobin content (this last feature affecting the color of the red blood cell on a stained peripheral blood smear). For example, a person recently transfused for iron deficiency would have small, pale, iron deficient red blood cells (RBCs) and the donor RBCs of normal size and color. Similarly, a person transfused for severe folate or vitamin B12 deficiency would have two cell populations, but, in this case, the patient's RBCs would be larger and paler than the donor's RBCs. A person with sideroblastic anemia (a defect in heme synthesis, commonly caused by alcoholism, but also drugs/toxins, nutritional deficiencies, a few acquired and rare congenital diseases) can have a dimorphic smear from the sideroblastic anemia alone. Evidence for multiple causes appears with an elevated RBC distribution width (RDW), indicating a wider-than-normal range of red cell sizes, also seen in common nutritional anemia.

In cases where oral iron has either proven ineffective, would be too slow (for example, pre-operatively) or where absorption is impeded (for example in cases of inflammation), parenteral iron can be used. The body can absorb up to 6 mg iron daily from the gastrointestinal tract. In many cases the patient has a deficit of over 1,000 mg of iron which would require several months to replace. This can be given concurrently with erythropoietin to ensure sufficient iron for increased rates of erythropoiesis.