Sickle cell disease is a blood disorder that’s passed down from parents to their kids. Babies are born with sickle cell disease when they inherit 2 abnormal genes (one from each parent). These genes cause the body’s red blood cells to change shape.
What sickle cell disease does to the blood
Instead of moving through the bloodstream easily, sickle cells can clog blood vessels. When blood can’t get where it’s needed, the body’s tissues and organs don’t have the oxygen they need to stay healthy.
Normal red blood cells last about 4 months in the bloodstream. But fragile sickle cells break down after only about 10–20 days. This usually causes anemia. Anemia is what happens when the body’s number of red blood cells (or amount of hemoglobin) falls below normal. People who are anemic often feel weak, tire more easily and may appear worn out.
People with sickle cell disease might have other problems because their blood isn’t moving through the body as well as it should. They have a higher chance of getting infections, having a stroke and getting a condition called acute chest syndrome. Acute chest syndrome is caused by inflammation, infection or blood vessels in the lungs that are blocked by sickle cells.
Signs and problems people with sickle cell can have
Most people with sickle cell disease have some degree of anemia (anemia is a condition when there are fewer red blood cells to carry oxygen around the body) in their blood than people who do not have the disease. They may get tired more easily, look pale or have a fast pulse. People with sickle cell anemia may develop jaundice. This happens because more fragile sickle-shaped red blood cells break down faster. Jaundice can cause a person’s skin and whites of the eyes to develop a yellowish tint.
It’s also common for people with sickle cell disease to have trouble fighting infections. Teens may grow more slowly and reach puberty later than other people. People with sickle cell anemia might have times where they feel severe pain in their chest, stomach, arms, legs or other parts of the body. This happens because sickle cells block blood flow through the small blood vessels in those areas.
When sickle-shaped cells block blood vessels in the brain, it puts people at risk of having a stroke. Signs of a stroke include headache, seizures, weakness of the arms and legs, speech problems, a droop on one side of the face and loss of consciousness. Other possible problems that sickle-shaped cells can cause include leg ulcers, bone or joint damage, gallstones, kidney damage, eye damage and delayed growth.
How you can stay healthy if you have sickle cell disease
If you have sickle cell disease, you can do most of the things everyone else does if you take the right steps. To stay as healthy as possible:
• Eat a balanced, healthy diet.
• Take medicines exactly as your doctor tells you.
• Exercise regularly, but in moderation.
• Get plenty of rest and stay away from alcohol, drugs and smoking.
If you have sickle cell disease, you may need to put some limits on your activities. But with the help of doctors, friends and family, you can manage the condition and live your life to the fullest. Find more health-related information at UHCCommunityPlan.com/WI
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