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Sickle Cell Anemia

You have sickle cell anemia, also called sickle cell disease. That means your red blood cells don't have a normal round shape. Instead they're shaped like a half moon or crescent moon (or like an old farm tool called a sickle). These sickle cells can't carry oxygen as well as normal, round blood cells.

Sickle cell anemia runs in families. It often affects African Americans and certain other ethnic groups. It's an inherited (genetic) disease. You get it from a changed (mutated) gene passed down from each parent. There's also something called sickle cell trait. This happens when you get 1 mutated gene from 1 of your parents. Sickle cell trait usually doesn't cause symptoms and isn't serious. The disease and the trait can't be passed from person to person by coughing or touching. Sickle cell anemia can be controlled. But it can't be cured without a bone marrow transplant. Most newborns are now tested for sickle cell disease at birth.

A sickle cell crisis happens when many sickle cells stick together and pile up in the blood vessels. During a sickle cell crisis, you may have severe pain in the chest, stomach, arms, and legs. The crisis can last for hours, or even days. It can happen several times a year.

Home care

Tips for taking care of yourself at home include:

  • Watch for sores (ulcers) on your legs. These are caused by poor blood flow. They're a sign that the sickle cell anemia isn't under control.

  • If you snore or sometimes stop breathing during sleep, tell your healthcare provider.

  • Get treatment for any other health condition, such as diabetes. This is important to prevent complications of sickle cell anemia.

  • Get early prenatal care if you're pregnant or plan to get pregnant.

  • If you plan to travel by air, go in pressurized aircraft only. Check with your healthcare provider about any needed safety steps if you must travel in a nonpressurized aircraft.

  • Talk to your healthcare provider about what kind of pain medicine you should use.

  • Drink plenty of water. This is even more important during warm weather.

  • Get treated for any infection as soon as it happens. This includes cold, flu, and skin infections.

  • Wear warm clothes in cold weather or in air-conditioned rooms.

Lifestyle changes

Suggestions for changes include:

  • Limit alcohol intake to no more than 1 drink per day.

  • Stop smoking. Go to a stop-smoking program to improve your chances of quitting.

  • Exercise regularly but not to the point that you become extremely tired. Drink plenty of fluids when you exercise.

  • Don't do very strenuous activities, such as rough contact sports.

  • Don't swim in cold water.

Follow-up care

Make a follow-up appointment as advised. Regular follow-up visits are very important.

When to call your healthcare provider

Call your healthcare provider right away if you have any of these:

  • Swollen hands or feet

  • Sudden paleness in the skin or nail beds

  • Yellow color of the skin or eyes (jaundice)

  • Fever, or any other sign of infection

  • Belly swelling

  • Sudden tiredness with no interest in what's going on

  • Erection that won't go away

  • Trouble hearing or seeing

  • Weakness on 1 side of the body

  • Sudden change in speech

  • Headache

  • Trouble breathing

  • Joint, stomach, chest, or muscle pain

  • Limping

Online Medical Reviewer: L Renee Watson MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Todd Gersten MD
Date Last Reviewed: 12/1/2021
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