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The Patient's Guide to ...

by Morgan Ellis

According to the CDC, Sickle Cell Anemia or Sickle Cell Disease affects approximately 100,000 Americans and 100 million people worldwide. Sickle Cell Anemia disproportionately affects people of African descent, to the point where 1 out of 365 African Americans have the disease over the course of their lifetime.  People with Sickle Cell Anemia suffer from intermittent pain, blurry version and serious fatigue. In honor of the recognition of Sickle Cell Awareness Month last month, as it is important to bring attention to the disease by answering commonly asked questions.


What is Sickle Cell Disease, and What does it Affect?

Sickle Cell Disease is a genetic condition that affects the red blood cells, which carry oxygen throughout the body. While unaffected red blood cells are round flexible and move through blood vessels easily, blood cells that are affect by sickle cell anemia are crescent shape, and they are rigid and sticky. In turn, the affected blood cells have trouble traveling through blood vessels and block blood flow. The affected red blood cells, have a shorter lifespan than the non-affected ones. Non affected red blood cells, live up to 120 days, while the affected ones only live up to 20 days.


How Can you get Sickle Cell Anemia?

As a result of Sickle Cell Disease being a genetic condition people whose parents both had the sickle cell trait, have a high chance of inheriting the disease. Sickle Cell trait is one sickle cell gene and one normal gene. People who have the trait do not get symptoms of sickle cell disease. The trait can be passed on to their children. If both parents harbor the sickle cell trait there is a 25% chance that their child will have Sickle Cell Anemia. There is also the same 25% chance that the child will not have Sickle Cell Anemia or the trait.


Which Backgrounds are Affected By Sickle Cell?

While having Sickle Cell Trait, or Sickle Cell Anemia, can happen to anybody, it is most common with African Americans and other racial and ethic groups such as: Latinos, Indian, Asian, Sub-Saharan Africans and Mediterranean backgrounds.


How is Sickle Cell Disease Diagnosed?
Sickle Cell Disease can be diagnosed by genetic testing, to learn whether, a person carries the trait and their likeliness to pass it on to their children. Prenatal screening can, be done before the baby is born as early as 8 to 10 weeks. They use a sample of amniotic fluid, which is the liquid that surrounds the growing embryo or a sample of tissue for the placenta. There is also a screening that Newborns, test where drops of blood from a heel prick are tested. They then are sent to the provider who ordered the test and to the healthcare provider. If the baby has the disease, then, the provider who ordered the test and retest to see if the diagnosis is correct.


What are the Symptoms?

Symptoms in newborn babies can be recognized as early as 5 to 6 months with a yellowish color to the whites of the eyes, which is a result of numerous red blood cells break down. The baby may be present extreme tiredness or fussiness, which is a result of the anemia. In addition, there may be swelling of the hands and feet.

If older patients present any of the following symptoms of severe Sickle Cell Disease, they should seek medical care or call 911 immediately.

  • Extreme Tiredness and Shortness of Breath

  • Dizziness 

  • Sudden weakness, numbness on one side of the body, confusion, or trouble speaking, seeing, or walking, which are typical signs of a stroke

  • A temperature of 101.3 *F which would indicate a need to be seen by a healthcare provider and treated with antibiotics.

  • Episodes of pain: These are called crises, and it is where blood flow is block in major, muscles joints and abdomen.

  • Swelling of the Hands and Feet: This is a result of the blood cells blocking the circulation.

  • Infections: Sickle Cell damage the spleen, which increase the harm of infections

  • Vision issues: Tiny blood vessels in the eye can be plugged with sickle cell blood cells, they damage the retina and create vision problems.


Is there a Cure?      

The only cure for Sickle Cell Disease is a bone marrow or stem cell transplant, but that comes with great risk and is only suited for severe situations.


There are ways that people with the disease can do to prevent and reduce the occurrence of pain crises:

  • Drink plenty of water

  • Try to avoid places with high altitudes

  • Try to avoid places or situations with low oxygen levels

  • Try not to get too hot or too cold

Morgan Ellis photo.jpg

Morgan Ellis is a current undergraduate student at Spelman College pursuing an English degree with the plans of becoming a physician. She is passionate about enhancing the accessibility to healthcare, through writing, research and mentoring. This led her to join Emory University’s Health Career Collaborative where she mentored high school students, who have interest in the healthcare fields, fostering their interest in medicine, science and public health. She has also contributed her talents to the MGH Youth Neurology Research Program, where she worked with cutting edge technology, through interactive learning sessions in neurology. As a Senior Contributor at Today's Patient, Morgan strives to write about medicine and medical issues to ensure that readers get factual information to help them navigate the healthcare system.

October 2022  Page 6