Normal red blood cells have a 120-day life span. But people born with sickle cell disease have sickle-shaped blood cells that usually live no more than 20 days. These sickled cells can get stuck in blood vessels, blocking blood flow .
Less blood flow can damage the body's organs, muscles, and bones, sometimes leading to life-threatening conditions. Sickle cell disease may cause problems such as:
When a child is born with sickle cell disease, it's impossible to predict which problems will develop, when they will start, or how bad they will be. During the first 6 months of life, infants have a high level of fetal hemoglobin (HbF) in their blood, which protects them from red blood cell sickling. But dangerous complications of sickle cell disease may quickly develop between ages 6 months and 5 years, after levels of fetal hemoglobin decrease.
Older children and adults with sickle cell disease may have few problems. Or they may have a pattern of ongoing complications that shortens their lives. The most common and serious problems caused by sickle cell disease are anemia, pain, and organ failure. Stroke affects around 10 out of 100 children who have sickle cell disease.1
Other complications of sickle cell disease include:
- Growth slowdown. Children who have sickle cell disease often grow more slowly than normal and go through puberty later than children who don't have the disease.
- Open sores (ulcers) on the legs and feet, commonly during adulthood. These ulcers can be very painful and heal slowly. Some may last for years.
- Eye damage. Long-term vision problems may result from blocked blood flow in the inner lining of the eye (retina).
- A lung problem called pulmonary hypertension where blood pressure is very high in the lungs.