Sickle cell anemia can cause your blood cells to stick as they move through your body, leading to symptoms such as fatigue, intense pain, and jaundice. Symptoms such as chest pain may signal a sickle cell crisis.

Sickle cell anemia (SCA) causes your red blood cells to be hard and sickle-shaped (like a “C”) instead of round.

Your red blood cells carry oxygen and nutrients to every cell in your body as they move through your veins and arteries. But when they have this shape, they get stuck more often and don’t carry as much oxygen. SCA-related circulation problems can cause pain, swelling, and other symptoms.

SCA affects people differently. Your symptoms will depend on how the condition affects your body over time. Here are some common SCA symptoms and ways to manage them.

If you have anemia, you do not have enough healthy red blood cells to carry oxygen to all parts of your body. Being low on oxygen can mean that you’re tired often. You may also feel weak, lack energy, or get dizzy.

Fatigue is one of SCA’s most common and challenging symptoms. Your healthcare team can help you find treatments and ways to manage it, such as:

Pain is another common SCA symptom. Your cells can get stuck when they flow through your smallest veins. As a result, the blood supply to your tissues can become blocked or cut off, causing pain.

You may experience acute pain, which gets intense quickly and lasts for short periods. Or you may have chronic pain, which happens almost every day for 6 months or longer.

Certain triggers can cause sudden, extreme pain. You may experience pain as a result of:

  • developing an infection
  • feeling cold
  • becoming dehydrated
  • experiencing trauma
  • overexerting yourself

You can work with your doctors to identify triggers and find ways to manage your pain. They may prescribe medications such as:

They may also suggest other pain management practices such as:

A combination of treatments may better improve your pain.

Jaundice is the yellowing of your skin and the whites of your eyes. It’s often related to anemia. When large numbers of red blood cells break down at once, such as in SCA, the byproducts can cause a color change because they build up faster than your liver can remove them.

A healthcare professional can suggest ways to treat jaundice. They may suggest:

  • hydration
  • transfusions
  • a medication such as voxelotor

Dactylitis is painful swelling in your hands and feet. It’s also known as hand-foot syndrome. When your blood cells get stuck in the small bones in your hands and feet, they can block blood flow, causing swelling. This is usually the first symptom of SCA in toddlers and infants.

Treating dactylitis in SCA may involve the same therapies as treating the condition overall, such as medications to treat pain, reduce swelling, prevent infection, and prevent your cells from sickling.

When you have SCA, you’re more likely to develop certain infections, such as:

  • flu
  • meningitis
  • pneumonia

You’re also more likely to get sicker from these infections. This risk is especially high in children.

Doctors strongly recommend staying up to date on vaccinations against various infections. Doctors may also prescribe daily antibiotics for children to prevent a serious infection.

Doctors usually diagnose SCA at birth during routine newborn screenings. Children don’t usually have symptoms until they are around 6 months old.

Early symptoms of sickle cell in children can include:

Is there a cure for sickle cell anemia?

A stem cell or bone marrow transplant can cure SCA, but the risks often outweigh the benefits. Doctors may recommend this procedure for people with severe symptoms — especially young children, who are less likely to experience complications.

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Because blood cells in SCA are stiff and pointed instead of round and flexible, they can get stuck in tiny blood vessels called capillaries. These blockages can trigger intense pain and a serious group of conditions collectively called sickle cell crisis.

A sickle cell crisis can involve the following conditions:

  • Aplastic crisis: Your body isn’t making enough blood cells, and you become pale and weak.
  • Hepatic crisis: Your liver stores too many red blood cells and stops working properly.
  • Splenic sequestration crisis: Your spleen becomes painful and enlarged due to trapped blood.
  • Vaso-occlusive crisis (acute painful crisis): Lack of circulation causes intense pain.
  • Acute chest syndrome: Sickle cells block blood flow in your lungs.

Symptoms of a sickle cell crisis include:

  • moderate to severe pain, often in your arms, legs, chest, and back
  • dactylitis
  • pale skin
  • weakness
  • shortness of breath

Sometimes, sickle cells can block blood flow to your lungs, damaging them. This serious complication is called acute chest syndrome. You might experience symptoms, but they can mimic those of other conditions.

Symptoms of acute chest syndrome include:

Acute chest syndrome is a medical emergency. If you suspect that you’re experiencing it, seek help right away.

Complications of sickle cell anemia

In addition to acute chest syndrome, the following conditions can occur as complications of SCA:

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The sickle-shaped red blood cells in SCA can cause problems with blood flow, leading to symptoms such as fatigue, pain, jaundice, swelling in your hands and feet, and frequent infections. These symptoms can occur suddenly in an event known as a sickle cell crisis.

Working with your doctor can help you reduce the frequency and intensity of your SCA symptoms. Treatments include pain medications, transfusions, and bone marrow transplants. Complementary approaches such as yoga and cognitive behavioral therapy may also help you manage symptoms.