What are the possible complications of sickle cell disease?

Sickle red blood cells are stiff and break apart easily.  Complications of sickle cell disease result from the constant breakdown of sickle red cells, and also from stiff sickle red blood cells blocking blood flow.  Complications can be either sudden (acute) or long-term (chronic).  Some complications are common and some are rare, and the number and severity of complications vary from one person to the next.

Sickle Cell complications can include:

  1. low red blood cell counts (anemia)
  2. pain episodes
  3. stroke
  4. increased infections
  5. bone damage
  6. yellow eyes (jaundice)
  7. early gallstones
  8. lung problems
  9. kidney damage and loss of body water in urine
  10. painful erections in men (priapism)
  11. blood blockage in the spleen or liver (sequestration)
  12. eye damage
  13. leg ulcers
  14. delayed growth

What can be done to help prevent these complications?

Many complications of sickle cell disease can be prevented by regular medical care, routine testing and early detection.  Early treatment of complications can prevent them from becoming serious or life-threatening.

Sickle cell patients should be under the care of a medical team that understands sickle cell disease. All newborn babies detected with sickle cell disease should be placed on daily penicillin to prevent serious infections. All of the childhood immunizations should be given plus the pneumococcal vaccine. Parents should know how to check for a fever because this signals the need for an urgent medical checkup for serious infection. The following are general guidelines to keep the sickle cell patient healthy:

  1. Taking the vitamin folic acid (folate) daily to help make new red cells.
  2. Daily penicillin until age six to prevent serious infection.
  3. Getting routine and special immunizations (including yearly flu shots) to prevent infections.
  4. Drinking plenty of water daily (8-10 glasses for adults).
  5. Avoiding too hot or too cold temperatures.
  6. Avoiding over exertion and stress.
  7. Getting plenty of rest.
  8. Getting regular check-ups from health care providers who are up-to-date on sickle cell care.
  9. Taking hydroxyurea to increase fetal hemoglobin helps to reduce symptoms and long term complications of sickle cell disease in many people.