Thalassaemia can cause a wide range of problems, although treatment can help keep many of them under control.

Children born with the main type of thalassaemia – beta thalassaemia major – usually develop symptoms a few months after birth.

Less severe types may not cause any noticeable problems until later in childhood or even until adulthood.

If you're a carrier of thalassaemia, you'll usually be healthy and won't have any symptoms.

Some of the main problems associated with thalassaemia are outlined below, but not everyone with the condition will experience all of these.


Almost everyone with thalassaemia major or other serious types will develop anaemia, which can be life-threatening in severe cases.

In anaemia there are low levels of haemoglobin (a substance that transports oxygen) in the blood.

It typically causes:

  • tiredness (fatigue) and a general lack of energy 
  • shortness of breath
  • noticeably pounding, fluttering or irregular heartbeats (palpitations)
  • pale skin
  • yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice)

Frequent blood transfusions will usually be needed for life to stop anaemia becoming severe. Read more about treating thalassaemia.

Excess iron levels

Most people with thalassaemia major or other severe types will also be at risk of developing a range of problems caused by a build-up of iron in the body. It's usually a side effect of repeated blood transfusions,

Too much iron in the body can cause:

Lifelong treatment with medication to stop iron building up to harmful levels will usually be needed. This is known as chelation therapy.

Other problems

Thalassaemia major or other severe types can also sometimes cause a number of other problems, including:

  • delayed growth during childhood
  • gallstones (small stones in the gallbladder), which can cause inflammation of the gallbladder (cholecystitis), tummy (abdominal) pain and jaundice
  • unusual bone growth, such as an enlarged forehead or cheeks
  • weak, fragile bones (osteoporosis)
  • reduced fertility – some people with thalassaemia may need fertility treatment to help them have children


Page last reviewed: 17/05/2016

Next review due: 17/05/2018