What You Need to Know About Sickle Cell Anemia

Get the facts on this commonly inherited blood disorder.

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What is sickle cell anemia?

Sickle cell anemia is a disease of red blood cells.  Normally, red blood cells are circular, flexible, and able to flow through blood vessels easily.  This is important because red blood cells are responsible for carrying oxygen around your body and delivering it to all of your organs.  However, when you have sickle cell anemia, your red blood cells turn into “sickle cells”, which are abnormally shaped, sticky, and rigid.  These “sickle cells” do not flow through the blood vessels as easily, which may cause problems.

What causes sickle cell anemia?

Sickle cell anemia is a genetic disorder that you inherit from your parents.  It is caused by a mutation in the gene that codes for hemoglobin, a component of red blood cells.  If you get two mutated genes (one from each parent), your body will make an abnormal form of hemoglobin that causes your red blood cells to change shape, giving you sickle cell anemia.

What is sickle cell trait?

If you have sickle cell trait, it means you have inherited one normal gene from your parents and one mutated gene from your parents.  Because you still have one normal gene, you will not have sickle cell anemia.  However, you may pass the mutated gene onto your children, which puts them at risk of getting sickle cell anemia if their other parent also passes on a mutated gene. 

Who is at highest risk of getting sickle cell anemia?

Sickle cell anemia most commonly affects African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and people of Middle Eastern, Asian, Indian, and Mediterranean descent. 

What are the symptoms of sickle cell anemia?

The symptoms of sickle cell anemia can be mild or severe, depending on if you are suffering from what is called a sickle cell crisis.  Mild symptoms include anemia, dark urine, yellowing of the white parts of the eyes, and swelling.  However, sometimes sickle cells can cause more severe blockages in your blood vessels.  These symptoms include stroke, acute chest syndrome (chest pain and difficulty breathing), organ damage, blindness, issues with the spleen, leg ulcers, pain episodes in other parts of the body, and more.

How is sickle cell anemia treated?

There is no cure for sickle cell anemia.  For somebody suffering from a sickle cell crisis, treatments may include pain control, fluids, and blood transfusions until the crisis is over.  A medication called hydroxyurea may also help with reducing the number of pain episodes.  Antibiotics and oxygen inhalation may also be effective.

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