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Complications of Sickle Cell Anemia

Sickle cell anemia is one of a group of inherited disorders called sickle cell disease. This type of anemia affects the shape of red blood cells, which carry oxygen to every part of the body.

Red blood cells are usually round and flexible, so they move easily through blood vessels. In sickle cell anemia, some red blood cells are shaped like sickles or crescent moons. These sickle cells also become rigid and sticky, which can slow or block blood flow.

There’s no cure for most people with sickle cell anemia. Treatments can relieve pain and help prevent complications associated with the disease.

Complications of Sickle Cell Anemia

Stroke

Sickle cells can block blood flow to an area of the brain. Signs of stroke include seizures, weakness or numbness of the arms and legs, sudden speech difficulties, and loss of consciousness. If your child has any of these signs and symptoms, seek medical treatment immediately. A stroke can be fatal.

Pulmonary hypertension

People with sickle cell anemia can develop high blood pressure in their lungs. This complication usually affects adults. Shortness of breath and fatigue are common symptoms of this condition, which can be fatal.

Acute chest syndrome

A lung infection or sickle cells blocking blood vessels in the lungs can cause this life-threatening complication, resulting in chest pain, fever and difficulty breathing. It might require emergency medical treatment.

Organ damage

Sickle cells that block blood flow to organs deprive the affected organs of blood and oxygen. In sickle cell anemia, blood is also chronically low in oxygen. This lack of oxygen-rich blood can damage nerves and organs, including kidneys, liver and spleen, and can be fatal.

Blindness

Sickle cells can block tiny blood vessels that supply the eyes. Over time, this can lead to blindness.

Gallstones

The breakdown of red blood cells produces a substance called bilirubin. A high level of bilirubin in the body can lead to gallstones.

Leg ulcers

Sickle cell anemia can cause painful open sores on the legs.

Splenic sequestration

A large number of sickle cells can get trapped in the spleen, causing it to enlarge and possibly causing belly pain on the left side of the body. This can be life-threatening. Parents of children with sickle cell anemia should learn to regularly feel their child’s spleen for enlargement.

Priapism

In this condition, men with sickle cell anemia can have painful, long-lasting erections. Sickle cells can block the blood vessels in the penis, which can lead to impotence over time.

Pregnancy complications

Sickle cell anemia can increase the risk of high blood pressure and blood clots during pregnancy. It can also increase the risk of miscarriage, premature birth and having low birth weight babies.

Deep vein thrombosis

Sickling of red cells can cause blood clots, increasing the risk of a clot lodging in a deep vein (deep vein thrombosis) or a lung (pulmonary embolism). Either can cause serious illness or even death.

Prevention of sickle cell anemia

If you carry the sickle cell trait, seeing a genetic counselor before trying to conceive can help you understand your risk of having a child with sickle cell anemia. A genetic counselor can also explain possible treatments, preventive measures and reproductive options.

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