Sickle Cell Anemia: Causes, Diagnosis, Symptoms, Treatment and Perspective


Sickle cell disease is a severe and inherited condition that affects the blood and various organs of the body.

It affects red blood cells, causing “death,” which produces episodes of pain and other symptoms.

Among episodes of death, people with sickle cell disease are usually fine. Long-term complications can occur. A good treatment started early in life can prevent complications.

Therefore, early diagnosis and specialized treatment for sickle cell disease are recommended. The sickle cell trait is not the same as sickle cell disease.

Sickle cell disease is a severe group of inherited conditions (genetic). It affects the red blood cells in the blood. Sickle-cell anemia is a specific form of sickle cell disease in which there are two sickle cell genes.

What is sickle cell disease?

Red blood cells lose their shape in sickle cell disease and become sickle-shaped (like a crescent moon) instead of a standard disk shape. This can cause several problems, as described later.

Among episodes of illness, people with sickle cell disease feel good. Sickle cell disease is, therefore, a group of conditions that make red blood cells sickle-shaped.


The sickle cell trait is not the same as sickle cell disease or sickle cell anemia. The sickle cell trait means that you carry a single sickle cell gene, but it usually does not cause disease. Read more about the sickle cell trait.

The rest of this booklet will discuss sickle cell disease, including sickle cell anemia and the other less common disorders.

What is sickle cell anemia?

The anemia caused by sickle cell disease is not the same as the anemia caused by iron deficiency.

Almost everyone with sickle cell anemia will also have anemia, a condition in which hemoglobin in the blood is low. Hemoglobin is found in red blood cells and is what helps transport oxygen throughout the body.

In general, this does not cause any other symptoms. However, suppose an affected person is also infected with the parvovirus, commonly known as slapped cheek syndrome (a condition that primarily affects children and babies and causes a bright red rash on the cheeks). In that case, I may need a blood transfusion.

The same treatment is used for children if they experience swelling of the spleen, another cause of sudden onset anemia. Additional symptoms include headaches, rapid heartbeat, dizziness, and fainting due to a lack of oxygen in the body.

Who gets sickle cell disease?

Anyone whose parents carry the defective gene that causes sickle cell anemia can be born with the disease. If both parents have the defective gene, there is a 25 percent chance that each child will be born with the disease.

The parents often will not know they are carriers of the disease since they may not suffer it.

It is more common in people whose family origins are African, African-Caribbean or Asian, or Mediterranean.

It is rare in people of northern European origin. On average, 1 in 2,400 babies born in England have sickle cell disease, but the rates are much higher in some urban areas, about 1 in 300 in some places.

Sickle cell disease is now one of the most common inherited (genetic) conditions in babies born in the United Kingdom.


The cause is inherited (genetic). A change in the genes tells the body how to make an essential protein called hemoglobin. To get sickle cell disease, you must have two altered hemoglobin genes, one from each parent.

If you only have one of these genes, you will have a sickle cell trait, which is much milder.

The most common type of sickle cell disease occurs when you have two sickle cell genes (sickle cell anemia). The medical abbreviation for this is hemoglobin SS (or HbSS).

Other types of sickle cell disease involve a sickle cell gene plus another abnormal hemoglobin gene of a different type.

These include SC hemoglobin; hemoglobin S / beta-thalassemia; hemoglobin S / Lepore; hemoglobin SO Arab.

Symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment are similar for all sickle cell conditions.

How do sickle cell genes cause sickle cell disease?

Sickle cell genes affect the production of an important chemical called hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is found in red blood cells, part of the blood. Hemoglobin carries oxygen and gives the blood its red color.

The sickle cell genes cause the body to produce abnormal hemoglobin called HbS. (Normal hemoglobin is called HbA.)

HbS behaves differently from HbA. Under certain conditions, HbS causes red blood cells to change shape: instead of the standard donut shape, they take on the shape of a sickle, like a crescent moon.

This is called sickle-shaped. The conditions that trigger the necrosis are cold, infection, lack of fluid in the body (dehydration), and little oxygen and acid (the acid is produced in intense physical exercise).

What is wrong with sickle cells?

Sickle cells contain HbS, primarily more complex and less flexible than normal red blood cells.

Therefore, they can get trapped in small blood vessels and block them. This can happen suddenly, causing several symptoms known as a sickle cell crisis (explained below).

Repeated blocks can also cause complications.

Sickle cells are more easily destroyed than normal red blood cells. This means that people with sickle cell disease tend to have few red blood cells and moderate and persistent anemia.

Moderate anemia is not usually a problem because HbS (the different hemoglobin) transports oxygen well, and the body can compensate. However, you may have episodes of severe anemia for several reasons.

For example, if too much blood reaches the spleen, too many red blood cells break down simultaneously or due to certain infections that stop the production of blood cells. Severe anemia can make you very sick.


The diagnosis is made by a blood test. The blood sample is analyzed to see what type of hemoglobin is present in the blood (using a test called hemoglobin electrophoresis or other methods).

This can diagnose most cases of sickle cell trait and sickle cell anemia (SCD). Sometimes, the result is unclear, and additional tests, such as DNA (genetic) tests, are needed.

The diagnosis is made by a blood test. The blood sample is analyzed to see what type of hemoglobin is in the blood.

Tests for pregnant women

If the result shows that you have a sickle cell gene, a test will also be offered to the baby’s father (if possible). The test results from both parents will help decide if your baby could be affected by sickle cell disease. The results will be explained to you.

If there is a possibility that the baby will inherit sickle cell disease, you will be offered counseling to see if you would like to have an additional test for the unborn baby (a prenatal test).

A prenatal test finds out if the unborn baby has sickle cell disease. If so, you will be offered counseling to discuss how this might affect the baby and if you want to continue the pregnancy.

Could sickle cell disease make my baby sick during pregnancy?

It does not affect the baby while it is in the uterus. Symptoms begin around three months of age, and treatment for sickle cell disease should begin at this age.

When is the best time to get tested?

If you are pregnant, the ideal time to get a blood test for sickle cell is before ten weeks of pregnancy. This allows more time to evaluate your partner or baby, if necessary.

You can ask your doctor for a test early in pregnancy if you have not yet been offered one. However, the tests can still be done at a later stage.

A prenatal test (the unborn baby) can be performed from 10 weeks onwards, depending on the type of test used. The usual tests offered are chorionic villus sampling (CVS) or amniocentesis.

Should my partner and I perform tests before starting a family?

Women or couples may wish to be tested for the sickle cell trait before starting a family, especially if family origins make the sickle cell trait more likely. You can ask your doctor for a sickle cell test.

The advantage of getting tested before you get pregnant is that you know whether or not there is a possibility that your baby will inherit sickle cell disease. This can be useful when making decisions about pregnancy.

For example, you may want to have a prenatal test during pregnancy if there is a baby’s risk of sickle cell disease.

The current recommendations are that women who undergo infertility tests and receive treatment should undergo sickle cell trait tests.

Tests for newborn babies

All newborn babies are offered a bloodstain test 5-8 days after birth. This proves a series of medical conditions that are considered essential because early treatment makes a difference.

The test takes a small blood spot from the baby’s heel. The test now includes sickle cell disease. The results will be given about six weeks later.

No action or treatment is needed if the baby has a sickle cell trait. If the baby has sickle cell disease, the result will be explained. You will be given an appointment at the clinic to verify the diagnosis and begin treatment. Treatment should start when the baby is three months old.

Symptoms of sickle cell disease

The symptoms of sickle cell disease come and go. Usually, there are episodes of symptoms, but between episodes, you feel good.

The symptoms appear and disappear because the red blood cells can behave normally most of the time, but if something causes many of them to become infected, the sickle cells cause symptoms.

This is called a sickle cell crisis if there are severe and sudden symptoms due to sickle cell disease.

There is much individual variation in symptoms, such as how many and how often you contact them. Some people with sickle cell disease have frequent symptoms, while others have very few, and their sickle cell disease is hardly noticeable.

For most people, the symptoms are somewhere between these two extremes. Most people with sickle cell disease have some episodes of sickle cell crisis each year.

Symptoms usually begin after a few months of age. Before that age, the baby has different hemoglobin, called fetal hemoglobin, which is not affected by the sickle cell gene.

The various symptoms that may occur if you have sickle cell disease include:

Episodes of pain

These are also called pain crises or vaso-occlusive crises. They occur when sickle cells block small blood vessels in the bones, causing pain. The pain usually occurs in bones and joints.

The pain may vary from mild to severe and may appear suddenly. A common symptom in infants and young children is that small bones in the fingers and toes swell and hurt; This is known as dactylitis.

Episodes of belly (abdominal) pain may occur if the sickle cells block the blood vessels in your abdomen.

Acute chest syndrome

This happens when blocked blood vessels in the lungs, and sometimes it can happen with a lung infection.

Symptoms may include chest pain, high temperature (fever), and shortness of breath. Babies and young children may have looser symptoms and usually look bad, lack energy (lethargy), are restless, or have rapid breathing.

Acute chest syndrome is severe and, if suspected, should receive urgent treatment at the hospital.

Acute chest syndrome may begin a few days after a painful sickle cell crisis. It is more common in pregnant women or who have recently had a baby.


People with sickle cell disease are more prone to severe infections, especially certain germs (bacteria), which can cause pneumonia, meningitis, septicemia, or bone infections.

These include pneumococcal bacteria, Haemophilus influenzae type b, meningococcal bacteria, and salmonella bacteria that can infect the bones. Symptoms of the infection include fever, malaise, and pain in the affected part of the body.

Children with sickle cell disease are at high risk of severe or life-threatening infections. It is essential to see a doctor quickly if you suspect an infection or feel sick.

Note: A fever can occur without an infection in a sickle cell crisis.

Sickle cell anemia

Anemia is a lack of hemoglobin in the blood. People with sickle cell disease usually have moderate anemia, which usually causes no problems.

However, sometimes, people with sickle cell disease can get severe anemia, which can be severe. It may appear very suddenly or more gradually. Urgent treatment may be needed.

The symptoms of severe anemia are:

  • Feeling tired, fainting, shortness of breath, dizziness, nausea, or rapid breathing worsens with physical activity.
  • Babies and young children can be lethargic without feeding too much or badly.
  • A pale skin color (easier to see on the lips, tongue, nails, or eyelids).
  • The spleen sometimes enlarges rapidly and causes sudden and severe anemia in children. The enlarged spleen is in the abdomen and can be felt. Parents can be shown how to feel their child’s spleen. If the spleen enlarges rapidly, it shows that urgent treatment is needed.


Sickle cell disease is a lifelong disease that needs long-term treatment. This treatment comes in various forms, from preventing a sickle cell crisis to emergency care for sudden anemia.

If you have sickle cell disease, vaccines are vital to prevent mild infections from worsening. The prevention of painful episodes can be achieved by avoiding possible triggers.

Drink plenty of water, wear clothes appropriate for the weather, and avoid sudden temperature changes (for example, jumping into cold water). The medication can also be prescribed for persistent pain.

Treatments for anemia are usually not necessary, but dietary supplements such as folic acid can help stimulate the production of red blood cells.

Generally, sickle cell disease can not be cured, so treatment and lifelong monitoring are needed. Several treatments help prevent sickle cell disease episodes or prevent related problems, such as infections.

Principles of treatment

It must be treated by a doctor or specialist team with experience treating sickle cell disease patients. If the specialist is too far from your home, part of your treatment may be with a local hospital or doctor, but local doctors should see your specialist.

Because the symptoms of sickle cell disease can start suddenly, you should be able to see a doctor and receive hospital treatment urgently, as needed.

You can be shown how to recognize the symptoms (in yourself or your child) so that treatment can begin quickly. The treatment must be adapted to your individual needs. It is essential to take preventive treatments against the infection and attend your check-ups.

Stem cell transplantation is the only available treatment to cure sickle cell disease. It is only used for severe sickle cell disease. Its use is limited by the side effects of the procedure and the availability of adequate donors.

Stay healthy

A daily antibiotic (penicillin or erythromycin if you are allergic to penicillin) is recommended. This is especially important to protect against severe infections in children under five.

Vaccines: all the usual childhood vaccines are recommended; you must be vaccinated against meningitis and hepatitis B and the flu vaccine once a year. These vaccines are recommended for adults with sickle cell disease and children with sickle cell disease.

Vitamin supplements: additional folic acid is usually recommended. This helps the body produce new red blood cells.

Travel: If you go to a country with malaria, take special care to take medicines to prevent malaria and avoid mosquito bites (people with sickle cell disease can get very sick from malaria).

Avoid smoking (which is bad for blood vessels) and excess alcohol. Also, avoid the factors that can trigger necrosis.

Factors that can trigger sickle cell disease include:

  • Colds.
  • Lack of oxygen.
  • Lack of fluid in the body (dehydration).
  • Hard exercise
  • High temperature (fever).
  • Infections


  • Drink much liquid.
  • Exercise regularly (but avoid excessive exercise) and eat a healthy and balanced diet.
  • Avoid cold and excessive effort.
  • Treat infections and fevers quickly. In general, you will be given detailed advice on detecting signs of fever or infection in you or your child and how to get treatment quickly.
  • Consult a doctor quickly if you feel unwell. Tell doctors and nurses that you have sickle cell disease.

Is there a cure for sickle cell disease?

Stem cell or bone marrow transplants are the only way to cure sickle cell disease. They are not used frequently because of the enormous risks involved in the procedures.

Harsh treatments such as these are only used when considering that the long-term benefits of a transplant outweigh the short-term risk of the procedure.

Sickle-cell anemia took the life of rapper Prodigy, 42 years old. He suffered complications from sickle cell anemia and did not respond to treatment.

Treatment of sickle cell episodes

Most people with a sickle cell crisis do not need to go to the hospital to receive treatment. If the pain is mild and there is no fever, it can be treated at home. The treatment usually involves:

Analgesics : depending on the amount of pain, you can take several types of analgesics. Mild analgesics are acetaminophen or ibuprofen. The moderates are codeine or dihydrocodeine.

An intense pain killer, such as morphine, may be needed for severe pain, usually given in the hospital.

Good hydration: this usually means drinking extra fluid or a drip in one of your veins, which is necessary if you are sicker or can not drink.

Oxygen: This is usually given to you through a mask in the hospital. Most of your red blood cells may be sickle-shaped if you are not getting enough oxygen.

Antibiotics are used if you have an infection or when an infection is suspected. Usually, you will already take a regular preventive antibiotic. However, if an active infection is suspected, you will need a different antibiotic at a higher dose.

People with sickle cell disease should avoid any potential triggers of a sickle cell crisis as much as possible. For example, try to stay warm in cold weather, avoid dehydration, and take precautions if you are subjected to extreme exercise.

Blood transfusions

Blood transfusion is a valuable treatment for some situations, such as acute chest syndrome or severe anemia. It can also be used to help prevent or treat certain complications.

The transfusion helps because it adds normal red blood cells to the blood. This corrects anemia and reduces the effects of the disease. There are possible side effects of blood transfusions, such as iron overload and problems with the immune system.

Therefore, transfusions are administered for a specific need rather than routinely.

Treatment of the acute thoracic syndrome

Some treatments for acute chest syndrome are the same as for sickle cell episodes: analgesics, hydration, and antibiotics. In addition, you may need a blood and oxygen transfusion. A type of chest physiotherapy called incentive spirometry also helps.


Hydroxycarbamide (also called hydroxyurea), which is taken regularly, may help reduce the number of symptoms, such as pain episodes and acute chest syndrome.

Hydroxycarbamide can have serious side effects and needs monitoring with blood tests. It may be an option, but you and your doctor should consider the pros and cons of taking it.

The health of women


The choice of contraceptive method must be carefully considered. The intrauterine contraceptive device (called ‘the coil’) can cause excruciating periods. It has been reported that the use of injectable contraceptives provides some protection against episodes of falciformation.

Planning a baby and pregnancy

Having sickle cell disease increases the risk of specific problems in pregnancy, such as high blood pressure or premature birth. Also, your sickle cell disease symptoms may increase while pregnant.

Remember that some medications, such as hydroxycarbamide, should be avoided if you try to conceive or become pregnant. You will also be advised to take a higher dose of folic acid (5mg) if you are pregnant or plan to become pregnant.

Therefore, consult your doctor from the beginning when planning a pregnancy or being pregnant. Usually, you will have additional control of a specialist during your pregnancy.

You may want to have tests for your partner and the unborn baby to see if your baby could inherit sickle cell disease.

Anesthetics and operations

An operation or anesthesia is one of the things that can trigger sickle cell disease. Therefore, always inform your anesthesiologist, surgeon, and other health care personnel that you have sickle cell disease so that precautions can be taken to reduce the risk.

For example, a blood transfusion can be recommended before the operation or anesthesia.

What are the possible complications of sickle cell anemia, and how are they prevented or treated?

Possible complications in children, growth, development, and nutrition

As with any long-term illness, a child with sickle cell disease may grow more slowly than usual or be malnourished if it affects their appetite.

Your child’s growth, development, and nutrition should be monitored regularly, and, if necessary, nutritional supplements can be administered.

Some children with sickle cell disease take longer than usual to control the bladder during the night to wet the bed (nocturnal enuresis). Various treatments can help.

Puberty may begin about 2-3 years later than the average for adolescents.

The growth of bones can also be affected. For example, there may be changes in the hip or shoulder joints due to blood vessels blocked in that part of the bone.

If a joint is severely affected, surgery may be necessary.

Stroke or brain injury

This severe complication affects approximately 1 in 10 children or adolescents with sickle cell disease. If sickle cells block blood vessels in the brain, this can cause a stroke.

There may be stroke symptoms, such as weakness of the face or limb or difficulty speaking. For some children, there may be no apparent symptoms. However, many small strokes can cause subtle brain injury and hinder learning.

Strokes are treated with blood transfusions, which improve blood flow to the brain. In addition, research has found that regular blood transfusions help prevent strokes.

An ultrasound test called transcranial Doppler can be used to observe blood flow to the brain. This helps doctors decide if your child needs blood transfusions for prevention. Children of 3 years should be offered these scans.

Spleen problems

The spleen is an organ located in the belly (abdomen) on the upper left side. Its function is to help the immune system. Sickle cells can block blood vessels in the spleen.

This can cause the spleen to swell suddenly with blood, like losing blood in the spleen. This is a cause of sudden and severe anemia when your child suddenly becomes ill.

The medical term is splenic sequestration. You need urgent treatment with a blood transfusion.

If this problem occurs more than once, one option is surgery to remove the spleen. However, the problem usually resolves in adulthood because the spleen becomes hard (fibrous) and can not swell.

Parvovirus infection

Parvovirus is a common infection in childhood. It usually causes a mild illness with high temperature (fever), blushing the cheeks, and a rash.

With sickle cell disease, the virus can disrupt the bone marrow, stopping producing blood for a while. This causes severe anemia and must be treated with blood transfusions until the bone marrow recovers.

Complications of blood transfusions

Transfusions can cause blood reactions. These are less likely if the blood is carefully adapted to your blood type. Infections such as hepatitis B and C can be transmitted by transfusion.

This is less likely in the United Kingdom and countries where donor blood is tested for infections. The hepatitis B vaccine is also recommended.

Repeated blood transfusions can overload the body’s tissues with iron. You may need tests to measure the level of iron in the body.

If iron levels increase, you may need a chelation treatment, which helps the body eliminate excess iron.

Possible complications in older adolescents and adults

Damage to various organs can develop gradually during adolescence and adulthood due to small, repetitive blocks of small blood vessels. The amount of complications varies from person to person.

Lungs, heart, and kidneys

Any of these organs can suffer some damage. Therefore, you will usually be offered regular checks of your heart, lungs, and kidney function. Various treatments can help.


Regular eye controls are essential. Sickle cell disease can cause changes in the blood vessels in the back of the eye (retina); This is called retinopathy. For retinopathy, laser treatment is administered to prevent further damage.

In addition, sickle cells can cause a sudden blood vessel blockage in the eye. If this happens, you will have a sudden reduction in your vision. This needs immediate treatment. Therefore, always consult a doctor quickly if your vision is suddenly reduced.

Unwanted erections

Some teens and men with sickle cell disease may have unwanted erections of the penis, which can be painful. The medical name for this is priapism.

This can be pretty brief, but if an erection does not diminish within an hour, then urgent treatment is needed. There are several treatments to relieve or prevent unwanted erections.


Stones in the gallbladder are more common in people with sickle cell disease and can cause episodes of pain in the upper right part of the abdomen. They may need a treatment that is usually an operation to remove the gallbladder.

Ulcers in the legs

Leg ulcers can occur with sickle cell disease, but they are not common. The treatment is with dressings, and zinc supplements can help.

Complications of blood transfusions

These were previously explained for children and also applied to adults.

What is the perspective?

Sickle cell disease is a severe disease that can shorten life. Without treatment, people with sickle cell disease can die in childhood because of problems such as infection.

The excellent treatment makes a big difference. Improvements in treatment mean that life expectancy has increased.

Even with modern treatment, sickle cell disease can still cause severe or life-threatening problems. The dangerous problems are severe infection, acute chest syndrome, and sudden severe anemia.

Awareness of symptoms and early treatment is essential.

Some people get very few problems from sickle cell disease; others have more symptoms or complications.

The treatment of sickle cell anemia is a developing area of ​​medicine. New treatments continue to be developed, and information about the perspectives is very general. The specialist who knows your case can give you more precise information about the perspectives of your particular situation.