What is sickle cell disease?

Sickle cell disease is also known as sickle cell anemia. It is an inherited type of anemia. Sickle cell disease occurs when there are not enough healthy red blood cells to transport oxygen throughout the body. About 90,000 to 100,000 people in the United States have sickle cell disease.


Sickle cell disease is characterized by a family of genetic disorders. These often begin in early childhood. The most common type of sickle cell disease is sickle cell anemia.

Sickle cell disease causes healthy red blood cells to become misshaped or crescent shape. This causes the healthy red blood cells to quickly break down which leads to the flow of blood being blocked. When the blood flow is blocked, the body’s tissues are then starve of the oxygen they need to survive. This can lead to the organs becoming damaged.

Sickle cell disease causes a number of signs and symptoms including pain, repeated infections, shortness of breath and fatigue. How the disease affects a person will vary depending on the person. Some people may only experience mild symptoms, while other people may experience more serious symptoms which require being hospitalized.

The signs and symptoms of sickle cell anemia usually don’t show up until a baby is about four months old. Signs and symptoms of sickle cell anemia may include anemia, frequent episodes of pain, hand-foot syndrome, frequent infections, delayed growth, and vision problems. It is important to see a doctor when you have unexplained episodes of severe pain, swelling in the hands or feet, abdominal swelling, fever, pale skin or nail beds, a yellow tint in the skin or whites of the eyes, or any signs or symptoms of stroke.

There are only a few risk factors that increase the risk of developing sickle cell anemia. The main risk factor is genetics. For a baby to be born with sickle cell anemia, both parents must carry the sickle cell gene. In the United States, African-Americans are most likely to be affected by sickle cell anemia. Those that most commonly have the sickle cell gene in other countries are people from Africa, India, Mediterranean countries, Saudi Arabia, the Caribbean islands, South America and Central America.

Treatment for sickle cell disease may include antibiotics, pain medication, blood transfusions, Hydroxyurea, or a bone marrow transplant. Experimental treatments may include gene therapy, nitric oxide, drugs to boost fetal hemoglobin production, or statins.