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Symptoms of Sickle Cell Disease

Pain is a common symptom of sickle cell disease. It occurs when sickle cells block the blood flow to an organ or bones.

Sometimes the pain comes on quickly and lasts for hours to days. This is called acute pain. Some people have chronic pain, which lasts for weeks or months. Often it's a combination of both.

Sickle cells can cause a number of other problems throughout the body, too, such as:

  • Painful swelling in the hands and feet from blocked blood vessels
  • Acute chest syndrome, a problem that happens when the lungs get blocked with sickle cells or get infected
  • Stroke
  • May types of belly pain including gallstones
  • Slow growth in children due to anemia
  • Eye or kidney damage

Some people with sickle cell disease have only mild symptoms. For others, symptoms can be severe.

Some of the most severe problems in young children can be from infections. The spleen can be damaged and makes it harder to fight off some germs. Because of this, some infections can be very severe, even ones that would normally only cause a sore throat.

The most common symptoms of sickle cell disease include:

  • Pain
  • Pale skin, lips or nail beds compared to their normal color
  • Feeling tired
  • Feeling short of breath and lung problems
  • Losing balance or control of parts of your body (a stroke)
  • Jaundice - yellow color in the whites of the eyes; maybe yellow tint in the skin for some skin colors

Blood tests can show whether your child has sickle cell disease.

Routine screening for sickle cell disease

All newborns in the United States are tested for sickle cell disease as part of their routine screenings right after they're born. So you may learn very early that your child has sickle cell disease, even before the child has symptoms. Early detection means your child can get helpful support and care before problems begin.

Older patients, or ones new to this country can easily be tested, which is important if they are from groups where sickle cell disease is common.

Prenatal screening for sickle cell disease

Babies can also be tested before birth for the genes that cause sickle cell disease, if their parents want this testing. It's done by checking a sample of amniotic fluid (which surrounds the baby in the womb) or cells from the placenta (which grow in the womb with the baby and connects the baby to the mother).

Blood tests for sckle cell disease

If your child wasn't diagnosed before birth or through a routine screening, doctors may suspect sickle cell disease based on your child's symptoms. They may suspect it if your child has symptoms of anemia along with other common sickle cell symptoms, like pain - especially if your child is of African descent. Sickle cell disease is more common in people with African ancestors.

The blood tests for sickle cell disease are designed to check these things:

  • The type and amount of hemoglobin in the red blood cells
  • The level of red blood cells in the blood and their size and shape
  • Whether the person has two copies of the gene that causes sickle cell disease

Testing for Sickle Cell Trait

If you do not have sickle cell disease but are concerned about passing it on in your family, you can get a simple blood test to find out whether you have sickle cell trait (one copy of the gene that causes the disease). Whether or not you want this test, you can talk with a doctor to learn more about your risk of having the trait or passing the trait to your children. This is called genetic counseling.

We offer testing for sickle cell trait and genetic counseling at Odessa Brown Children's Clinic.

Who Treats This at Seattle Children's?

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Spring 2014: Good Growing Newsletter

In This Issue

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Download Spring 2014 (PDF)