Sickle Cell Anemia Explained

Sickle cell anemia is a condition in which you don't have enough healthy red blood cells that can carry oxygen throughout your body. A normal healthy red blood cell is usually round and flexible that can move in the blood vessels easily and freely. However, a sickle cell is rigid, sticky, and crescent-shaped. This irregular cell shape can block and slow down oxygen and blood flow throughout the body and the cell can get stuck in the small blood vessels.

There are a variety of symptoms those with sickle cell anemia face. Because sickle cells are weak and fragile, they break apart easily and die early. This does not provide an adequate amount of healthy red blood cells. Healthy red blood cells usually live up to about 120 days. However, many sickle cells die after 20 days. Because of the ineffectiveness and fragility of sickle cells, you would have a shortage of red blood cells (a condition known as anemia). The amount of oxygen throughout your body would not be enough for energy, so anemia patients would often feel fatigued. Those with sickle cell anemia would also experience episodes of pain called crises. Pain occurs when sickle cells block the blood flow through the blood vessels of the joints, chest, bones, and abdomen. The pain can vary in terms of intensity and longevity. Crises can range from a few hours to a few weeks. In some cases, crises can be so severe one must be hospitalized.

Other symptoms of sickle cell anemia is swollen hands and feet from the blockage of blood flow, frequent infections because sickle cells attack the spleen, delayed growth from the lack of healthy red blood cells, and vision problems because sickle cells can damage one’s retina. Those with sickle cells are at risk for many other health complications such as stroke, acute chest syndrome, pulmonary hypertension, organ damage, blindness, skin ulcers, gallstones, and priapism.

Researchers found that sickle cell anemia is caused by a mutation in the gene that gives the signal for your body to produce hemoglobin. Hemoglobin provides blood its redness and iron. It also allows the red blood cells to carry oxygen from the lungs to the other parts of your body. Those with sickle cell anemia have abnormal hemoglobin that causes the red blood cells to be misshaped. It has been found that the sickle cell gene is hereditary and can be passed down recessively. Carriers of the sickle cell gene do not experience the symptoms of sickle cells; they just have the sickle cell gene and some sickle cells. This particular gene is more common in families that are from South and Central America, Saudi Arabia, Mediterranean countries, Africa, India, and the Caribbean Islands.

There are many treatments available for sickle cell anemia. However, only a bone marrow transplant offers a complete cure for sickle cell anemia. Bone marrow transplants are, however, risky and finding a donor is difficult.

A bone marrow transplant is when a doctor replaces the bone marrow that is affected by sickle cell anemia with a healthy bone donor. This procedure is reserved for patients with severe cases of sickle cell anemia. There are many other treatment aims to reduce the painful experience of a crises. Medications to treat sickle cell anemia include antibiotics to fight infections, and hydroxyurea or other pain-relieving medications that can reduce the frequency of crises. Because children have a higher risk for stroke, doctors would use a transcranial to assess their stroke risk. Because children with sickle cell anemia are more at risk for infections, vaccinations are used to prevent diseases. Blood transfusions can also be done in order to increase the number of healthy red blood cells.

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