Sickle Cell Anemia

You have sickle cell anemia, which is also called sickle cell disease. That means your red blood cells may lose their normal round shape and become shaped like a crescent or half-moon. These cells can't carry oxygen as well as normal, round blood cells. Sickle cell anemia runs in families, and commonly affects African-Americans and certain other ethnic groups. Sickle cell anemia is a genetic disease you get from a mutated (changed) gene passed down from each parent. Sickle cell "trait" happens when you get one mutated gene from one of your parents. Sickle cell trait usually does not cause symptoms and is not serious. Neither the disease nor the trait can be passed from person to person by coughing or touching. Sickle cell anemia can be controlled, but not 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, and 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 and are a sign that the sickle cell anemia is not under control.

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

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

  • Get early prenatal care if you are 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, especially during warm weather.

  • Get treated for any infection (cold, flu, skin infection) as soon as it happens.

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

Lifestyle changes

Suggestions for changes include:

  • Limit alcohol intake to no more than one 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.

  • Avoid very strenuous activities, such as rough contact sports.

  • Don't swim in cold water.

Follow-up care

Make a follow-up appointment, or 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 the following:

  • Swollen hands or feet

  • Sudden paleness in the skin or nail beds

  • Yellow color of the skin or eyes (jaundice)

  • Fever or signs of infection

  • Swelling in the belly

  • Sudden tiredness with no interest in what is going on

  • Erection that won't go away

  • Trouble hearing or seeing

  • Weakness on one side of the body

  • Sudden change in speech

  • Headache

  • Trouble breathing

  • Joint, stomach, chest, or muscle pain

  • Limping