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Anemia, a common blood disorder that affects the way blood cells carry oxygen through the body, affects over 3 million Americans. In anemic individuals, red blood cells are unable to adequately nourish the tissues and organs with oxygen, which can result in symptoms like dizziness, fatigue, and accelerated heartbeat.

Sickle cell anemia (or sickle cell disease) is an inherited red blood disorder that carries many of the same symptoms and side effects as anemia, but red blood cell abnormalities can also lead to other complications.

What is sickle cell anemia?

To properly supply the body with oxygen, red blood cells must maintain their shape. Sickle cell anemia causes the body’s red blood cells to form a thin, sickle shape, making it hard for them to move easily through the blood vessels. These sickle-shaped red blood cells are fragile and deteriorate quickly, lasting only around 10-20 days—a short lifespan when compared to a typical red blood cell, which lasts around 120 days.

Sickle cell anemia can cause a great deal of problems for those affected by it, and some of its effects can last a lifetime.

What are sickle cell anemia symptoms?

Symptoms of sickle cell anemia can range from mild dizziness to chronic pain. Since the disease limits blood flow to various parts of the body, it can cause shortness of breath, more frequent infections, general discomfort, or extreme pain. It can also affect lung performance, putting those with sickle cell anemia at extreme risk for complications from COVID-19.

Common sickle cell anemia symptoms include:

  • Anemia. Since sickle cells die quickly, it leaves an individual with too few red blood cells. Due to this shortage, the body can't get enough oxygen and a person experiences fatigue.
  • Pain. Sudden pain occurrence (also referred to as pain crises or vaso-occlusive crisis), is a painful complication of sickle cell anemia. Pain, varying in intensity and duration, is experienced when the uniquely shaped blood cells block the blood flow to your chest, abdomen, and joints. A person may even feel pain in their bones.
  • Swelling of hands and feet. When blood flow is blocked to the hands and feet, swelling may occur.
  • Frequent infections. Sickle cells can damage the spleen, leaving a person more susceptible to infection, especially flu, meningitis, and hepatitis.
  • Delayed growth or puberty. A shortage of healthy red blood cells can slow growth in infants and children as well as delay puberty in teens.
  • Vision problems. Sickle cells can block the blood vessels that supply the eyes, damaging the retina and leading to vision problems.

How do you get sickle cell anemia?

Sickle cell anemia is a rare genetic disease that must be inherited from both parents via the sickle cell trait (SCT). The disease is typically diagnosed in infancy/newborn screenings.

Who is at risk for sickle cell anemia?

African Americans are at the highest risk for contracting sickle cell anemia with 1 in every 500 African American children developing the disease.

Children, in particular, are at greater risk for tissue damage, infections, and severe symptoms caused by sickle cell anemia. Therefore, newborns and young children should receive treatments as early on as possible.

Is there a cure for sickle cell anemia?

Stem cell transplants and bone marrow transplants can cure sickle cell anemia. However, there are risks associated with these types of treatments and the benefits and risks must be carefully measured in every instance.

More typically, sickle cell anemia is managed through healthful habits, preventive measures, and medications aimed at relieving symptoms and preventing complications.

Can sickle cell anemia be prevented?

Because sickle cell anemia is inherited, it is not preventable. However, parents may consider consulting a genetic counselor prior to conceiving in order to learn more about their risk of passing certain genes to their offspring.

Symptoms can be prevented or lessened by:

  • Staying well hydrated
  • Avoiding extreme temperatures
  • Avoiding strenuous activities
  • Receiving recommended vaccinations to prevent infection
  • Taking medication prescribed by a doctor

Sickle cell anemia has intense, uncomfortable, and dangerous effects on the body. Although typically diagnosed in infancy, if someone develops fever, episodes of severe pain, swelling of the hands, feet or abdomen, yellow tint to the skin, or any signs/symptoms of stroke, they should consult a medical professional immediately as it could be signs of anemia.

Visit Summit Health’s oncology and hematology page to see the many Summit Health specialists, who are dedicated to helping you better understand and treat many conditions and diseases, including sickle cell anemia. Your provider may even prescribe blood tests via our laboratory services to evaluate hemoglobin level.