What Is Sickle Cell Disease?

Sickle cell disease is a disease of the blood. Red blood cells usually look like round discs. But in sickle cell disease, they're shaped like crescent moons, or an old farm tool known as a sickle.

A round disc is the healthiest shape for red blood cells because they can move easily through the blood vessels of the body to get oxygen where it needs to go.

When red blood cells are shaped like sickles, they can get stuck, especially inside smaller blood vessels. This keeps blood from flowing as it should, which can cause pain and damage to parts of the body.

sickle cell

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Sickle Cell Disease?

Kids who have sickle cell disease may feel pain in different parts of the body when blood vessels get clogged with sickle cells. The pain can last a few hours or several days, and it might hurt a lot or just a little. When this happens, it's called a sickle cell crisis or pain crisis ("crisis" means a time of trouble).

Nobody knows exactly when sickle cells might get stuck or which blood vessels might get clogged. Some things can lead to a sickle cell crisis, like if a person gets too cold, gets sick, has a lot of stress, or doesn't drink enough liquids. Doctors and nurses can help by giving medicine to make the pain better.

Because kids with sickle cell disease don't have enough normal red blood cells, they may get tired a lot. They also can get infections more than other kids do. They may not grow as fast as their friends. Sometimes the skin and whites of their eyes have a yellowish color, known as jaundice (say: JON-dus), and they may have to go to the bathroom a lot.

What Causes Sickle Cell Disease?

Sickle cell disease is an inherited (say: in-HAIR-uh-ted) disease. That means you can't catch it from other people like you can catch a cold or the flu. Kids are born with the disease when both parents pass along the sickle cell gene to their children.

How Is Sickle Cell Disease Treated?

Kids with sickle cell disease should get all recommended vaccinations. Most also take penicillin (say: pen-uh-SIL-in), a drug that helps prevent infections. A doctor may also prescribe a vitamin called folic acid, which helps the body make new red blood cells. Another medicine, hydroxyurea (say: hi-drok-see-yu-REE-uh), can make sickled red blood cells less sticky and less likely to cause problems.

Taking medicine does not cure sickle cell disease, but it can help keep kids who have it from getting sick. Pain medicine also helps them feel better when they have a sickle cell crisis. Kids with sickle cell disease may need to go to the hospital if they have a lot of pain or a serious infection. At the hospital, they can get liquids, antibiotics, or other medicine.

Sometimes kids with sickle cell disease need blood transfusions (say: trans-FEW-zyuns). That's a way to put healthy blood cells right into a kid's body.

Can Sickle Cell Disease Be Cured?

In some cases, a bone marrow transplant can cure sickle cell disease. Bone marrow transplants replace the sickle cells with healthy cells from someone else. They are risky and not right for everyone, so scientists are working on finding other ways to cure sickle cell disease.

What Can a Kid Do to Stay Well?

Having sickle cell disease can be frustrating and sometimes painful. To help manage sickle cell disease:

  • Take the medicines as your doctor says.
  • Avoid things that can cause you to have pain, such as being very cold or very hot.
  • Talk to your doctor about which activities are right for you and which you should avoid.
  • Don't smoke, drink alcohol, or take drugs.
  • Drink lots of liquids and get enough rest.
  • Let an adult know if you don't feel well.
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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor. © 1995-2021 KidsHealth®. All rights reserved. Images provided by The Nemours Foundation, iStock, Getty Images, Veer, Shutterstock, and Clipart.com.