Sickle cell anemia is is an inherited form of anemia — a condition in which there aren’t enough healthy red blood cells to carry adequate oxygen throughout your body, which produces abnormally shaped red blood cells that have a crescent or sickle shape. These cells do not last as long as normal, round, red blood cells, which leads to anemia (low number of red blood cells). The sickle cells also get stuck in blood vessels, blocking blood flow. Signs and symptoms of sickle cell disease usually begin in early childhood and may include anemia, repeated infections, and periodic episodes of pain (called crises). This condition is caused by mutations in the HBB geneand is inherited in an autosomal recessive pattern. Treatment typically focuses on controlling symptoms and may include pain medicines during crises; hydroxyurea to reduce the number of pain episodes; antibiotics and vaccines to prevent bacterial infections; and blood transfusions.
There’s no cure for most people with sickle cell anemia, but treatments can relieve pain and help prevent problems associated with the disease. On July 7, 2017, the FDA in the United States approved the use of Endari (prescription grade L-glutamine) to reduce the number of sickle cell crisis. Endari is the first FDA approved treatment that is also available for children with sickle cell disease five years of age and older.
Signs and symptoms of sickle cell anemia vary and change over time:
- Anemia. Sickle cells break apart easily and die, leaving you without enough red blood cells. Red blood cells usually live for about 120 days before they need to be replaced. But sickle cells usually die in 10 to 20 days, leaving a shortage of red blood cells (anemia).
- Episodes of pain. Periodic episodes of pain, called crises, are a major symptom of sickle cell anemia. Pain develops when sickle-shaped red blood cells block blood flow through tiny blood vessels to your chest, abdomen and joints. Pain can also occur in your bones.
- Painful swelling of hands and feet. The swelling is caused by sickle-shaped red blood cells blocking blood flow to the hands and feet.
- Frequent infections. Sickle cells can damage an organ that fights infection (spleen), leaving you more vulnerable to infections. Doctors commonly give infants and children with sickle cell anemia vaccinations and antibiotics to prevent potentially life-threatening infections, such as pneumonia.
- Delayed growth. Red blood cells provide your body with the oxygen and nutrients you need for growth. A shortage of healthy red blood cells can slow growth in infants and children and delay puberty in teenagers.
- Vision problems. Tiny blood vessels that supply your eyes may become plugged with sickle cells. This can damage the retina — the portion of the eye that processes visual images, leading to vision problems.