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. See a picture of
sickle cells blocking a blood vessel .
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:
- Painful events (vaso-occlusive complication), which
result when blood vessels are blocked. This is a common condition of sickle
- Splenic sequestration, usually seen in children age 6
months to 2 years during or after a simple respiratory infection. Large numbers
of sickled red blood cells become trapped in the
spleen . It can cause sudden and life-threatening
- Acute chest syndrome, most common in children but more
severe in adults. Coughing and chest pain are symptoms of acute chest syndrome,
which may occur after an infection or painful event.
- Severe infections, especially in children younger than
- Aplastic crisis, which may occur after infection with
some viruses. During an aplastic crisis, bone marrow stops producing red blood
cells, which results in sudden and severe anemia.
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
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. Normal red blood cells have a 120-day life span, but
sickled blood cells usually live no more than 20 days. When
bone marrow can't produce enough red blood cells to
keep up with sickled blood cell loss, severe anemia may develop.
Older children and adults with sickle cell disease may have few problems
or 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% of children with sickle cell
Other complications of sickle
cell disease include:
- Growth slowdown. Children with sickle cell
disease often grow more slowly than normal and go through
puberty later than children who don't have sickle cell
- 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).
People who have sickle cell disease live to age 50 to 60,
on average. A lot depends on the type of
sickle cell disorder and how it affects a person's