What is sickle cell disease?
Sickle cell disease changes normal, round red
blood cells into cells that can be shaped like crescent moons. The name "sickle
cell" comes from the crescent shape of the cells. (A sickle is a tool with
a crescent-shaped blade.)
Normal red blood
cells move easily through your blood vessels, taking oxygen to every part of
your body. But sickled cells can get stuck and block blood vessels, which stops
the oxygen from getting through. That can cause a lot of pain. It can also harm
organs, muscles, and bones.
See a picture of
sickle cells blocking a blood vessel .
Having sickle cell disease
means a lifelong battle against the health problems it can cause, such as pain,
stroke. But many people are able to have a very good
quality of life by learning to manage the disease.
What causes sickle cell disease?
disease is inherited, which means it is passed from parent to child. To get
sickle cell disease, a child has to inherit two sickle cell
genes—one from each parent.
When a child
inherits the gene from just one parent, that child has
sickle cell trait. Having this trait means that you don't have the disease but you are a
carrier and could pass the gene on to your
What are the symptoms?
Painful events (sickle cell crises) are the most common symptom of sickle cell disease. They
are periods of pain that happen when sickled cells get stuck in blood vessels
and block the blood flow. These events usually cause pain in the hands, feet,
belly, back, or chest. The pain may last for hours or for days.
People with sickle cell disease often have anemia, caused by a shortage
of red blood cells. Anemia makes you feel weak and tired. People with sickle
cell anemia may look pale or washed out. Their skin and the whites of their
eyes may have a yellowish look (jaundice).
How is sickle cell disease diagnosed?
A simple blood test can show whether a
person has sickle cell disease. Most states test for sickle cell disease before
infants go home from the hospital.
How is it treated?
Self-care and medical treatment can help you manage pain and avoid other health problems.
Early treatment includes daily
antibiotics from 2 months to 5 years of age to help
prevent infections. Routine childhood
and adult immunizations are also important.
Managing pain is often a big part of having sickle cell disease. You can
prepare for a painful event ahead of time by creating a pain management plan
with your doctor. The plan should include what you can do at home to relieve
pain for yourself or your child. The plan should also tell you when it is best
to call a doctor or go to a hospital.
Some people need regular
blood transfusions to lower the risk of stroke and
treat anemia and other problems. Some people take medicine to prevent complications. In rare cases, a stem cell transplant might be an option.
Regular checkups are an important
part of life with this disease. People with sickle cell disease need a good
working relationship with a doctor who is an expert in treating it.
How do you manage life with sickle cell disease?
Tips for you
- Learn what triggers, or sets off, painful events called sickle cell crises. Triggers often
include cold temperatures, wind, dehydration, and too much exercise. Low oxygen caused
by cigarette smoke, high altitude, and plane flights is another common trigger.
- People with sickle cell disease and their families face ongoing
stress. A support network can help ease stress and worry. Ask your doctor if
there is a support group in your area.
Tips for helping your child
- Make sure that your child takes antibiotics regularly until age 5
to prevent infections. And make sure he or she receives all the usual
immunizations on schedule.
- Your child can take part in normal school activities. Make sure
that teachers understand your child's special needs, like needing frequent
drinks and bathroom trips and avoiding overexertion and cold
Frequently Asked Questions