While there’s no cure for the disease, a little education can go a long way.
Sickle cell anemia, sometimes called sickle cell disease, is an inherited blood disorder and one of the many types of anemia. People with sickle cell anemia have red blood cells that are shaped differently than others, which affects their ability to carry oxygen throughout the body.
There’s no known cure for sickle cell anemia, though treatment has come a long way in recent years to help treat the pain of those with the disease.
In this blog, we’ll go over everything there is to know about sickle cell anemia, who’s at risk for it, and what treatment options are available.
What Causes Sickle Cell Anemia?
Sickle cell anemia (SCA) is a genetic blood disorder caused by a genetic mutation that impacts the shape of one’s red blood cells and hemoglobin. Red blood cells are typically round and pliable, kind of like a piece of putty (but at a microscopic level), which allows them to pass freely through your body’s blood vessels to deliver oxygen.
Those with sickle cell anemia have hemoglobin that changes the shape of the red blood cells to crescent moons, or sickles, that are rigid (as if the putty was left out of its container for too long). Because of this, the red blood cells cannot flow as freely throughout the body.
These red blood cells also typically live for 10 to 20 days, as opposed to the 120-day life span of a regular red blood cell.
Unlike some genetic conditions, a person will only be affected by sickle cell anemia if they receive the sickle cell gene from both parents. If a child only receives the sickle cell gene from one parent, they’ll have what’s known as the sickle cell trait.
People with the sickle cell trait will produce normal-shaped and sickle-shaped blood cells but won’t experience any symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They’re also at risk of passing the disease along to their children.
Sickle cell anemia is rare in the United States, though one-in-365 Black babies are diagnosed with SCD each year. Scientists believe this is because of an evolutionary adaptation that protects people from malaria (which is common in Africa).
Sickle Cell Anemia Symptoms
Sickle cell anemia symptoms typically appear when an infant turns six months old, though some people don’t start experiencing symptoms until much later in life. Symptoms can include:
Anemia: Because the red blood cells aren’t able to deliver oxygen to the body, people with sickle cell anemia will experience the same symptoms as those with iron-deficiency anemia, which can include fatigue, pale or yellow-ish skin, dizziness, shortness of breath, cold hands and feet, lightheadedness, and rapid heart rates.
Extreme Pain: People with sickle cell anemia will experience periods of pain, with the severity varying from person to person. This is caused when the irregularly-shaped blood cells block blood flow to major organs or joints.
The pain may last only for a few minutes but can sometimes go on for days. The amount of pain crises one goes through also varies, and some people may experience dozens of episodes a year.
Swelling of hands and feet: Because the cells block proper blood flow, it’s not uncommon for those with sickle cell anemia to experience swelling in their extremities.
Infections: Sickle cells can cause damage to major organs, such as the spleen, which increases the risk of infections. People with sickle cell anemia will receive vaccinations and antibiotics to reduce their risk of infections.
Delayed growth: A lack of oxygen and nutrients can cause children with sickle cell anemia to experience delayed puberty and growth.
Vision problems: Our eyes have tiny blood vessels that, like any other body part, receive oxygen to work properly. With sickle cell anemia, those vessels can become clogged and cause damage to the retina and cause vision problems.
Strokes: If enough blood doesn’t pass through the blood vessels, one’s body could experience a stroke.
Testing for Sickle Cell Anemia
Not sure if you carry the sickle cell trait? The best tests to see if you carry the gene are a complete blood count, which involves a simple blood draw, and hemoglobin electrophoresis, which is a type of DNA testing.
It should be noted that most babies are tested for the sickle cell trait in the first few months of their lives, but only if the parents have access to regular medical testing.
Sickle Cell Anemia Treatments
Treatments for sickle cell anemia are targeted at alleviating the pain people with the disease experience, and as of right now there’s no mainstream cure for the disease.
Certain children may be able to undergo a stem cell or bone marrow transplant, but the procedure could result in death and is still highly experimental. This involves receiving bone marrow from a donor. Researchers are also doing experiments with gene therapy to see if adults can maybe one day be cured of sickle cell anemia.
People with sickle cell anemia will also undergo routine blood transfusions, which increases the number of regular blood cells in the body to make it easier for oxygen and nutrients to be delivered to major organs. But because your body will continue to make sickle-shaped blood cells, this is only a temporary solution and must be done at regular intervals.
How AnemoCheck Can Help Those with Sickle Cell Anemia
If you’re someone with sickle cell anemia who receives regular blood transfusions, AnemoCheck can be a great tool for your treatment. Regular transfusions could result in excess iron, which can lead to organ damage, digestive issues, and stomach ulcers.
And because we know iron is present in hemoglobin, a great way to check your iron levels would be with AnemoCheck. Simply take a fingernail selfie and you’ll have an instant reading.