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Sickle Cell Disease

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Topic Overview

Sickle cell disease changes normal, round red blood cells into cells that can be shaped like crescent moons. The name "sickle cell" comes from the crescent shape of the cells. (A sickle is a tool with a crescent-shaped blade.)

Normal red blood cells move easily through your blood vessels, taking oxygen to every part of your body. But sickled cells can get stuck and block blood vessels, which stops the oxygen from getting through. That can cause a lot of pain. It can also harm organs, muscles, and bones.

See a picture of sickle cells blocking a blood vessel camera.gif.

Having sickle cell disease means a lifelong battle against the health problems it can cause, such as pain, infections, anemia, and stroke. But many people are able to have a very good quality of life by learning to manage the disease.

Sickle cell disease is inherited, which means it is passed from parent to child. To get sickle cell disease, a child has to inherit two sickle cell genes—one from each parent.

When a child inherits the gene from just one parent, that child has sickle cell trait. Having this trait means that you don't have the disease but you are a carrier and could pass the gene on to your children.

Painful events (sickle cell crises) are the most common symptom of sickle cell disease. They are periods of pain that happen when sickled cells get stuck in blood vessels and block the blood flow. These events usually cause pain in the hands, feet, belly, back, or chest. The pain may last for hours or for days.

People with sickle cell disease often have anemia, caused by a shortage of red blood cells. Anemia makes you feel weak and tired. People with sickle cell anemia may look pale or washed out. Their skin and the whites of their eyes may have a yellowish look (jaundice).

A simple blood test can show whether a person has sickle cell disease. Most states test for sickle cell disease before infants go home from the hospital.

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WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: October 01, 2012
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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