Sickle cell anemia is a blood disorder that changes the shape of some red blood cells (RBCs). The new, sickle shape makes it difficult for RBCs to carry oxygen. The odd shape can also cause acute episodes of pain known as sickle cell crisis.
The body will also destroy these sickle red blood cells because they are abnormal. Destroying sickle cells decreases the overall number of RBCs and can lead to
The change in the ability and number of RBCs can both decrease the amount of oxygen for the body.
Red Blood Cells: Normal and Sickle
Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.
Sickle cell disease is a genetic disorder. If you receive 1 defective gene from each of your parents, then you will have sickle cell disease.
If you only have 1 defective gene, you are said to have sickle cell trait, but not sickle cell disease. Although you won’t usually have any symptoms, you can pass this gene on to your children.
Sickle cell disease is more common in people who are black or of sub-Saharan origin. It is also more common in people of Greek and Italian descent as well as in people from some parts of India, Central and South America, and the Arabian Peninsula.
This condition produces a group of symptoms known as a sickle cell crisis. These are episodes of pain that occur with varying frequency and severity. It is usually followed by periods of remission. The risk for a sickle cell crisis increases with any activity that boosts the body's requirement for oxygen such as: This may include
- Physical or emotional
- High altitudes
Sickle cell crises can last hours or days. They affect the bones of the back, the long bones, and the chest. Crises can be severe enough to require hospital admission for pain control and IV fluids.
Symptoms of sickle cell crisis include:
- Pain and swelling in the hands and feet
Yellowed skin known as jaundice
- Pale skin color
- Chest pain, or episodic pain in joints, abdomen, or back
- Shortness of breath
- Abdominal swelling
- Unusual or prolonged headache
- Any sudden weakness or loss of sensation
- Prolonged erection
- Sudden vision changes
Sudden, severe anemia can cause:
- Shortness of breath
- Loss of consciousness
Complications of sickle cell anemia include:
- Destruction of the spleen
Severe bacterial infections:
- Damage to the joints, especially hip and shoulder
- Damage to eyes, resulting in impaired vision
or other neurological impairment
- Liver disease
High rate of
Damage to penis, due to prolonged erection, which may result in
- Heart murmurs
or enlarged heart
- Delayed growth
- Delayed sexual development
- Problems with thinking, memory, and performance
- Aplastic crisis or transient red cell aplasia
Sickle cell anemia is diagnosed with a specific blood test. Hemoglobin electrophoresis is a simple blood test. It can be done by
or a local sickle cell foundation. Most states require testing of newborns for sickle cell.
is a form of prenatal testing. It can also detect sickle cell disease.
Sickle cell cannot be cured. Basic treatment of sickle cell crisis includes:
In addition, treatment may include:
Newborns with sickle cell disease may be given penicillin . It is given twice a day, beginning at age 2 months. It is continued until at least 5 years of age.
It is recommended that children with sickle cell disease receive
pneumococcal vaccine (PCV-13) series. Other routine immunizations should also be given, such as an annual flu shot.
Hydroxyurea is the first drug to significantly prevent complications of sickle cell disease. It increases the production of fetal hemoglobin which decreases the number of deformed RBCs.
This treatment can reduce the frequency of sickle cell crisis. However, hydroxyurea is not appropriate for everyone with sickle cell disease.
Blood transfusions can treat and prevent some of the complications. The transfusion introduces health red blood cells. Transfusion therapy can help prevent recurring strokes in children.
Bone Marrow Transplant
bone marrow transplant
from a matched donor may be effective. There are medical risks involved. Recipients must also take drugs that suppress the immune system for the rest of their lives.
Sickle cell anemia cannot be prevented. There are some general guidelines that may keep the condition under control. Be sure to discuss these with your doctor:
supplements. This will help to build new RBCs.
- Drink plenty of water to prevent dehydration.
- Avoid temperature extremes.
- Avoid overexertion and stress.
- Get plenty of rest.
- Get regular check-ups with knowledgeable healthcare providers.
- Seek genetic counseling.
Furie KL, Kasner SE, et al. Guidelines for the Prevention of Stroke in Patients With Stroke or Transient Ischemic Attack: A Guideline for Healthcare Professionals From the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association.
Stroke. 2010 October 21.
Mehanna AS. Sickle Cell Anemia and Antisickling Agents then and now.
Curr Med Chem. 2001;8:79-88.
Sickle cell disease in adults and adolescents. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at:
http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T902929/Sickle-cell-disease-in-adults-and-adolescents. Updated May 17, 2016. Accessed June 13, 2016.
Sickle cell disease. Kids Health—Nemours Foundation website. Available at:
http://kidshealth.org/parent/medical/heart/sickle_cell_anemia.html. Updated July 2015. Accessed June 13, 2016.
Sickle cell disease (SCD). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at:
http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/sicklecell/index.html. Updated March 25, 2016. Accessed June 13, 2016.
Sickle Cell Disease. Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians website. Available at:
http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/diseases-conditions/sickle-cell-disease.html. Updated October 2015. Accessed June 13, 2016.
What is sickle cell anemia?
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
website. Available at:
Updated June 12, 2015. Accessed June 13, 2016.
DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance
: Vichinsky EP, Neumayr LD, Gold JI, et al. Neuropsychological dysfunction and neuroimaging abnormalities in neurologically intact adults with sickle cell anemia.
Last reviewed November 2017 by Michael J. Fucci, DO
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
Copyright © EBSCO Publishing. All rights reserved.