What You Need to Know About Sickle Cell Anemia

November 12, 2012

What You Need to Know About Sickle Cell Anemia

The red blood cells are crucial to the function of the body. The body needs oxygen in order to survive. Red blood cells are oxygen taxis, transporting vital oxygen through the bloodstream to all internal parts of the body. Red blood cells are round in order to best transport oxygen molecules. But if a child is born with sickle cell anemia, the red blood cells are malformed and cannot carry oxygen.

This is a painful genetic disease that can eventually kill through causing severe complications such as internal organ damage or a stroke. The only cure is a bone marrow transplant – provided that the body does not reject the new bone marrow. Since it is so difficult to find a donor, this option is often unavailable for patients.

Who Is Most At Risk

The prevailing theory is that sickle cell anemia is caused by the same gene that helps people to become resistant to malaria. People with ancestors that came from malaria-infested countries are most prone to passing on the defective gene. These areas include:

  • Africa

  • The Mediterranean

  • Saudi Arabia

  • Central America

  • South America

Parents can carry the sickle cell gene without developing any symptoms. Children develop sickle cell anemia when both of their parents carry the defective gene. Relatives of people suffering from sickle cell anemia can take a blood test to see if they are carriers.

Signs and Symptoms

Sickle cell anemia symptoms tend to come and go in periodic attacks. The first symptoms can appear in patients as young as four months old. The main symptoms include:

  • Problems seeing

  • Being exhausted all of the time

  • Fever

  • Skin turns pale

  • Fingernails turn pale or a different color

  • Swelling of the abdomen, hands and/or feet

  • Deep pain the bones or abdomen

  • Babies and children have stunted growth

Symptoms are caused by the malformed red blood cells. Not only are they shaped like a crescent moon, but they are stiff and cannot flow easily through the bloodstream. They die after 10 to 20 days while a healthy round red blood cell can live up to 120 days.

Maintenance and Treatment

Not all patients with sickle cell anemia face a premature death. This condition affects each patient differently. Some patients may discover that with medications, diet changes, keeping hydrated and learning how to manage stress can help reduce the frequency or intensity of attacks. There are many online and in-person support groups for patients and their family members to help provide emotional support in an extremely stressful illness.

Medications to ease symptoms include antibiotics, painkillers, hydroxyurea and nitric acid nutritional supplements. Some patients need oxygen tanks to help them breathe. Blood transfusions can help temporarily but is not a cure. Currently, stem cell transplant research is a promising but experimental treatment. Another experimental drug is hoped to be given to babies while still in the womb, but this is not on the market yet.

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