Sickle cell anemia is an inherited form of anemia — a condition in which there aren't enough healthy red blood cells to carry adequate oxygen throughout your body.
Normally, your red blood cells are flexible and round, moving easily through your blood vessels. In sickle cell anemia, the red blood cells become rigid and sticky and are shaped like sickles or crescent moons. These irregularly shaped cells can get stuck in small blood vessels, which can slow or block blood flow and oxygen to parts of the body.
There's no cure for most people with sickle cell anemia. However, treatments can relieve pain and help prevent further problems associated with sickle cell anemia.
Signs and symptoms of sickle cell anemia often don't appear until an infant is at least 4 months old and may include:
Although sickle cell anemia is usually diagnosed in infancy, if you or your child develops any of the following problems, see your doctor right away or seek emergency medical care:
Sickle cell anemia is caused by a mutation in the gene that tells your body to make hemoglobin — the red, iron-rich compound that gives blood its red color. Hemoglobin allows red blood cells to carry oxygen from your lungs to all parts of your body. In sickle cell anemia, the abnormal hemoglobin causes red blood cells to become rigid, sticky and misshapen.
The sickle cell gene is passed from generation to generation in a pattern of inheritance called autosomal recessive inheritance. This means that both the mother and the father must pass on the defective form of the gene for a child to be affected.
If only one parent passes the sickle cell gene to the child, that child will have the sickle cell trait. With one normal hemoglobin gene and one defective form of the gene, people with the sickle cell trait make both normal hemoglobin and sickle cell hemoglobin. Their blood may contain some sickle cells, but they generally don't experience symptoms. However, they are carriers of the disease, which means they can pass the defective gene on to their children.
With each pregnancy, two people with sickle cell traits have:
A blood test can check for hemoglobin S — the defective form of hemoglobin that underlies sickle cell anemia. In the United States, this blood test is part of routine newborn screening done at the hospital. But older children and adults can be tested, too.
In adults, a blood sample is drawn from a vein in the arm. In young children and babies, the blood sample is usually collected from a finger or heel. The sample is then sent to a laboratory, where it's screened for hemoglobin S.
If the screening test is negative, there is no sickle cell gene present. If the screening test is positive, further tests will be done to determine whether one or two sickle cell genes are present. People who have one gene — sickle cell trait — have a fairly small percentage of hemoglobin S. People with two genes — sickle cell anemia — have a much larger percentage of the defective hemoglobin.
To confirm any diagnosis, a sample of blood is examined under a microscope to check for large numbers of sickle cells — a marker of the disease. If you or your child has the disease, a blood test to check for anemia — a low red blood cell count — will be done. And your doctor may suggest additional tests to check for possible complications of the disease.
If you or your child carries the sickle cell gene, you may be referred to a genetic counselor — an expert in genetic diseases.
Sickle cell disease can be diagnosed in an unborn baby by sampling some of the fluid surrounding the baby in the mother's womb (amniotic fluid) to look for the sickle cell gene. If you or your partner has been diagnosed with sickle cell anemia or sickle cell trait, ask your doctor about whether you should consider this screening. Ask for a referral to a genetic counselor who can help you understand the risk to your baby.
Sickle cell anemia can lead to a host of complications, including:
If you carry the sickle cell trait, you may wish to see a genetic counselor before trying to conceive a child. A genetic counselor can help you understand your risk of having a child with sickle cell anemia. He or she can also explain possible treatments, preventive measures and reproductive options.
Taking steps to stay healthy may help you avoid complications of sickle cell anemia. If you or your child has sickle cell anemia, follow these suggestions to help you stay healthy:
If you or someone in your family has sickle cell anemia, you may want help with the stresses of this lifelong disease. Consider trying to:
The risk of inheriting sickle cell anemia comes down to genetics. For a baby to be born with sickle cell anemia, both parents must carry a sickle cell gene.
The gene is more common in families that come from Africa, India, Mediterranean countries, Saudi Arabia, the Caribbean islands, and South and Central America. In the United States, it most commonly affects blacks.