Clinical Review

Autoimmune Hemolytic Anemia: Evaluation and Diagnosis

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Urinary Hemosiderin

When hemoglobin is excreted by the kidney, the iron is deposited in the tubules. When the tubule cells are sloughed off, they appear in the urine. The urine can be stained for iron, and a positive result is another sign of hemolysis. Hemosiderinuria is a later sign of hemolysis, as it takes 1 week for iron-laden tubule cells to be excreted in sufficient quantities to be detected in the urine.

Urinary Hemoglobin

One other sign of hemolysis is the presence of hemoglobin in the urine. A quick way to demonstrate hemoglobinuria is to check the urine with a dipstick followed by a microscopic exam. In hemolysis, the dipstick will detect “blood,” while the microscopic exam will be negative for red cells.

Laboratory Evaluation for Autoimmune Component

The autoimmune component is shown by demonstrating the presence of either IgG molecules or complement on the surface of red blood cells.4,6 This can be done by performing the direct antiglobulin test (DAT) or Coombs test. IgG bound to red cells will not agglutinate them, but if IgM that is directed against IgG or C3 is added, the red cells will agglutinate, proving that there is IgG and/or C3 on the red cell membrane. The finding of a positive DAT in the setting of a hemolytic anemia is diagnostic of AIHA. Beware of individuals with concomitant weak positive DAT and other causes of hemolysis. The strength of the DAT result and the degree of hemolysis must match in order to conclude that the hemolysis is immune-mediated.

There are several pitfalls to the DAT. One is that a positive DAT is found in 1:1000 patients in the normal population and in up to several percent of ill patients, especially those with elevated gamma globulin, such as patients with liver disease or HIV infection.6 Administration of intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIG) can also create a positive DAT. Conversely, patients can have AIHA with a negative DAT.7-9 For some patients, the number of IgG molecules bound to the red cell is below the detection limit of the DAT reagents. Other patients can have IgA or “warm” IgM as the cause of the AIHA.10 Specialty laboratories can test for these possibilities. The diagnosis of DAT-negative AIHA should be made with caution, and other causes of hemolysis, such as hereditary spherocytosis or paroxysmal hematuria, should be excluded.


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