Affinity Health Plan

  • Health Awareness Series: May 2016 - Sickle Cell Anemia

    June 24, 2016

    What is sickle cell anemia?
    Sickle cell anemia (also called sickle cell disease) is a life-long condition that people are born with. It affects the red blood cells (the cells in our blood that carry oxygen). To be born with sickle cell anemia, a person would have to have a mother and father who both carry the abnormal gene that causes the disease. If a child has only one parent with the abnormal gene, the child will inherit what is called “sickle cell trait.” People with sickle cell trait usually do not have any of the symptoms of sickle cell anemia.

    The normal red blood cells that carry oxygen to organs in the body are round. When people have sickle cell anemia, some of their red blood cells do not have the normal round shape. Instead, the cells look like a crescent (or an old farming tool called a “sickle”). These odd-shaped red blood cells get stuck in the veins easily, so they don’t bring the oxygen that’s in them to the body’s organs. This lack of oxygen can cause pain or organ damage, such as strokes or heart attacks.

    What are the symptoms of sickle cell anemia?
    The symptoms of sickle cell anemia can start after a baby is just a few months old. The most common symptom is pain. Some doctors use the term “sickle cell crisis.” The pain can be in the bones, chest, or other parts of the body. It can be mild or severe, and last from hours to days. People can have other symptoms with their pain, including:

    • Fever
    • Swelling (for example, in the hands or feet)
    • Difficulty breathing

    Sickle cell anemia can also cause many different health problems, including:

    • Anemia, which is a condition in which the body has too few red blood cells. It makes people tired or weak
    • Getting a lot of infections
    • Lung problems, like trouble breathing or chest pain
    • Strokes, which is when a part of the brain dies because it didn’t get enough blood
    • Open sores on the skin (usually on the legs)
    • An erection that lasts too long and is very painful

    What can I do to prevent a sickle cell crisis or attack?
    Most episodes of pain are hard to predict, because they happen when the abnormal red blood cells stick together and prevent oxygen from getting to that part of the body where the pain is. But often the pain can be related to other things that, if identified and treated quickly, can help prevent a sickle cell crisis or attack. Things to watch out for include:

    • Infection – People with sickle cell anemia are more likely than others to get certain infections like pneumonia. If you get a fever see your doctor immediately
    • Dehydration – Dehydration is when the body loses too much water. Drink fluids regularly and see your doctor if you get diarrhea or are vomiting
    • Poor quality weather or air pollution – Try to stay indoors when the weather is muggy or of poor quality
    • Travel to high-altitude places or flying in an airplane – Places where there is less oxygen in the air will make it difficult for you to breathe. Talk to your doctor about whether travel is safe for you, and what you can do to prevent problems

    Is there a test for sickle cell anemia?
    Yes. A blood test can show if someone has sickle cell anemia. All newborn babies in the United States are tested for sickle cell anemia before they leave the hospital. Some parents choose to test their unborn baby for sickle cell anemia. This can be done in different ways.

    How is sickle cell anemia treated?
    Sickle cell anemia involves life-long treatment. Some treatments help prevent the different problems sickle cell anemia can cause. Others are aimed at relieving pain or treating related problems, like infection. Treatments include:

    • Antibiotics – Daily antibiotics help prevent infections in young children
    • Vaccines – There are different vaccines for both adults and children. Talk to your doctor and make sure you get the vaccines that are recommended to help prevent different infections, pneumonia and the flu
    • Hydroxyurea (sample brand names: Droxia, Hydrea) – This medicine helps the body make more normal red blood cells
    • Blood transfusions – A blood transfusion is when a person gets blood that was given by another person. People with very low red blood cell counts (anemia) or people who have a high chance of having a stroke might get blood transfusions to help them feel better and to help prevent strokes
    • Folic acid – A vitamin called folic acid (also called folate) is needed for people with sickle cell anemia to make red blood cells. Doctors might suggest taking other vitamins, too
    • Pain medicines – Doctors can use different medicines to treat pain. Your doctor can help you make a plan for treating pain at home. If the pain is severe, people might need treatment in the hospital
    • Medicines to treat infection – It is important for people with sickle cell anemia to be treated for infections right away

    Is there a cure for sickle cell anemia?
    A “bone marrow transplant” or “blood stem cell transplant” can cure sickle cell anemia. This procedure replaces the cells that make your blood with healthy cells. But this treatment is not done very often for sickle cell anemia. That’s because it has many side effects and can be done only if people meet certain conditions.

    When should I call the doctor or nurse?
    You should call the doctor or nurse right away if the person with sickle cell anemia has any of the following problems. Do not wait to call, even if it’s the middle of the night, because it’s important to get treatment right away. Call for help if the person:

    • Gets a fever (temperature higher than 101.5ºF or 38.5ºC) or has other signs of infection
    • Has pain that doesn’t get better after it is treated at home
    • Has an erection that lasts longer than 2 to 4 hours
    • Has trouble breathing
    • Has symptoms of a stroke (weakness in an arm or leg, difficulty speaking or walking)

    What else can people with sickle cell anemia do to stay healthy?
    People with sickle cell anemia should:

    • Make sure you take care of yourself by drinking plenty of fluid, exercising regularly, eating a healthy diet and getting enough sleep
    • See your doctor regularly and get the checkups and tests that are recommended
    • Get the vaccines that are recommended for you. They can prevent certain serious infections
    • Take the medicines as prescribed by your doctor, such as hydroxyurea and folic acid

    A word from Dr. Sharon Deans, Chief Medical Officer at Affinity Health Plan:
    Sickle cell anemia is a life-long problem and it can be painful. See your doctor regularly and make sure you do what you can to prevent an attack or treat one when you get it.

    To learn more:

    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – Sickle Cell Disease (SCD)
    KidsHealth – Sickle Cell Anemia
    Sickle Cell Disease Association of America, Inc.  


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