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What Is Sickle Cell Anemia?
      • Sickle cell anemia is one of a group of inherited disorders known as sickle cell disease. It affects the shape of red blood cells, which carry oxygen to all parts of the body.

        Red blood cells are usually round and flexible, so they move easily through blood vessels. In sickle cell anemia, some red blood cells are shaped like sickles or crescent moons. These sickle cells also become rigid and sticky, which can slow or block blood flow.

        There's no cure for most people with sickle cell anemia. Treatments can relieve pain and help prevent complications associated with the disease.

      • Symptoms

        Signs and symptoms of sickle cell anemia usually appear around 6 months of age. They vary from person to person and may change over time.

      • Signs and symptoms can include:

        • Anemia. Sickle cells break apart easily and die. Red blood cells usually live for about 120 days before they need to be replaced. But sickle cells typically die in 10 to 20 days, leaving a shortage of red blood cells (anemia). Without enough red blood cells, the body can't get enough oxygen and this causes fatigue.
        • Episodes of pain. Periodic episodes of extreme pain, called pain crises, are a major symptom of sickle cell anemia. Pain develops when sickle-shaped red blood cells block blood flow through tiny blood vessels to your chest, abdomen and joints.

          The pain varies in intensity and can last for a few hours to a few days. Some people have only a few pain crises a year. Others have a dozen or more a year. A severe pain crisis requires a hospital stay.

          Some adolescents and adults with sickle cell anemia also have chronic pain, which can result from bone and joint damage, ulcers, and other causes.

        • Swelling of hands and feet. The swelling is caused by sickle-shaped red blood cells blocking blood circulation in the hands and feet.
        • Frequent infections. Sickle cells can damage the spleen, increasing vulnerability to infections. Infants and children with sickle cell anemia commonly receive vaccinations and antibiotics to prevent potentially life-threatening infections, such as pneumonia.
        • Delayed growth or puberty. Red blood cells provide the body with the oxygen and nutrients needed for growth. A shortage of healthy red blood cells can slow growth in infants and children and delay puberty in teenagers.
        • Vision problems. Tiny blood vessels that supply the eyes can become plugged with sickle cells. This can damage the retina — the portion of the eye that processes visual images — and lead to vision problems.
        • When to see a doctor

          See your health care provider right away if you or your child has symptoms of sickle cell anemia. Because children with sickle cell anemia are prone to infections, which often start with a fever and can be life-threatening, seek prompt medical attention for a fever greater than 101.5 F (38.5 C).

          Seek emergency care for symptoms of stroke, which include:

          • One-sided paralysis or weakness in the face, arms or legs
          • Confusion
          • Difficulty walking or talking
          • Sudden vision changes
          • Unexplained numbness
          • Severe headache
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