Sickle Cell Anemia

What is sickle cell anemia?

Sickle cell anemia is a genetic disease that causes your body to break down too many red blood cells (RBCs). RBCs carry oxygen to all the organs and tissues of your body. You get sickle cell anemia if both of your parents have the gene for sickle cell anemia. Your caregiver can confirm you have sickle cell anemia from the shape of your RBCs.

What are the signs and symptoms of sickle cell anemia?

  • Pain is the most common symptom of sickle cell anemia. You may have pain in your back, stomach, chest, or bones. It may come and go, or it may be constant. The pain can last for minutes up to a week. The pain may be worse during your monthly period or at menopause.

  • You often have a headache.

  • You feel tired.

  • Your skin is pale.

  • You have trouble breathing at rest or when you exercise.

How is sickle cell anemia treated?

  • Medicines:

    • Pain medicine: You may be given medicine to take away or decrease pain. Do not wait until the pain is severe before you take your medicine.

    • Antibiotics: This medicine is given to help treat or prevent an infection caused by bacteria.

    • Hydroxyurea: This medicine can help your body make red blood cells that are less likely to form a sickle shape. This may help decrease your pain.

  • Blood transfusion: You may need one or more blood transfusions to replace blood with RBCs that are not sickle shaped.

What can I do to manage my sickle cell anemia?

  • Eat a variety of healthy foods: This may help you have more energy and heal faster. Healthy foods include fruit, vegetables, whole-grain breads, low-fat dairy products, beans, lean meat, and fish. Ask if you need to be on a special diet.

  • Vitamins and minerals: You may need to take a vitamin called folic acid, and a mineral called zinc. Folic acid can help prevent blood vessel problems that can come with sickle cell anemia. Zinc may decrease how often you have pain.

  • Drink liquids as directed: Ask your caregiver what amount is best for you. For most people, good liquids to drink are water, juice, and milk.

  • Get vaccinated: Vaccinations can help prevent the infections that may lead to a sickle cell crisis. You should get a flu shot every year. You may need a vaccine to protect you from a virus called hepatitis B. Ask about other vaccinations you should have.

  • Balance rest and exercise: Rest during a sickle cell crisis. Over time, increase your activity to a moderate amount. Exercise regularly. Avoid exercise or activities that can cause injury, such as football. Talk to your caregiver about the best exercise plan for you.

  • Avoid cold: Do not go quickly from a warm place to a cold place. Do not go swimming in cold water. Stay warm in the winter.

What are the risks of sickle cell anemia?

  • You have a higher risk for infection when you have sickle cell anemia. You may get infections often in your lungs or urinary tract. You may have a sickle cell crisis. This is when you have severe pain and damage to your organs, such as your kidneys or spleen. You may have jaundice if too many RBCs break down. This is when your skin and the whites of your eyes turn yellow. You may develop acute chest syndrome. This is when you have chest pain and trouble breathing. Even with treatment, you may have severe pain. You may feel frustrated, worried, and depressed because of your anemia.

  • Sickle-shaped red blood cells break down much faster than normal cells. The sickle shape of the cells also causes the cells to get stuck in your blood vessels. This blocks the blood vessel, and does not let enough blood flow to where it needs to go in your body. This can cause a stroke or heart attack. You may develop stones in your gallbladder, which can cause pain and other problems. Even with treatment, organs such as your kidneys and liver may stop working. This can be life-threatening. Ask your caregiver for more information about the risks of sickle cell anemia.

Where can I find support and more information?

  • Sickle Cell Disease Association Of America
    231 East Baltimore St., Suite 800
    Baltimore , MD 21202
    Phone: 1- 410 - 528-1555
    Phone: 1- 800 - 421-8453
    Web Address:

When should I contact my caregiver?

Contact your caregiver if:

  • You have a new or different headache.

  • You have new pain in any part of your body.

  • You are more tired than usual during the day.

  • You see blood in your urine.

  • You are short of breath, even when you rest.

  • You are constipated or have diarrhea.

  • Your eyesight has changed in one or both eyes.

  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

When should I seek immediate care?

Seek care immediately or call 911 if:

  • You feel like you can no longer cope with your pain, or feel like harming yourself.

  • You cannot think clearly or feel like you are going to pass out.

  • You have abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting.

  • You start to lose vision in one or both eyes.

  • You have new weakness or numbness in your arm, leg, or face.

  • Your urine is dark, or you are urinating less than usual or not at all.

  • You have a new cough, shortness of breath, and chest pain.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

© 2014 Truven Health Analytics Inc. Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or Truven Health Analytics.

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