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Info You Should Know: Symptoms and Complications of Sickle Cell Disease


(Although the language here is directed to parents, this list applies to both children and adults with sickle cell. When in doubt, please contact your medical provider or go to the hospital.)  


NIH NHLBI guidelines for treating complications 


Your baby may have this condition if he/she lacks the number of healthy blood cells required to carry sufficient oxygen to the rest of the body. Some of the most common symptoms include paleness, low energy, breathing problems, and slower growth.

Treatment: The doctor will consider the severity of the symptoms to suggest a treatment plan, but they may rely on antibiotics and blood transfusion to treat the condition.

Acute Chest Syndrome

It could be an extremely painful and serious situation because it restricts blood flow to the lungs. Some common signs and symptoms include chest pain, breathing problems, and fever.


Treatment: The doctor may recommend treatment with blood transfusions, antibiotic medicine, pain medicine, and oxygen to help improve breathing.


Pain is common and happens when sickled cells restrict blood flow. Pain can be anywhere in the body – it can be in organs and joints as well.  The pain may continue for a few hours or extend to days and even weeks. It is important to give your child plenty of fluids, maintain temperature, and keep them from high altitudes to limit pain episodes. 


Treatment: Some of the most common treatment options include heating pads, prescription pain medicine, OTC pain relievers like ibuprofen, and hydroxyurea to help produce a specific type of hemoglobin. Extended pain requires hospitalization and narcotic medications. 

Hand-Foot Syndrome

A child may experience pain, coldness, or swelling in the feet and hands when the sickle cells affect the blood supply to these limbs.


Treatment: The doctor may rely on certain pain-relieving medicine to treat the symptoms. Giving your child plenty of fluids may also help.

Splenic Crisis

Sometimes, sickled cells accumulate in the spleen and clog it. This leads to swelling that prevents the spleen from filtering blood in the body. Specific signs include weakness, pain on the left side of the belly, and a rapid heart rate. 


Treatment: The usual treatment option is blood transfusion. The doctor may also consider removing the spleen iif splenic crisis becomes a regular issue.


Your child may have to fight with several infections including the infection of the lining of the brain and lung infection. Signs and symptoms include breathing problems, fever, coughing, headaches, and pain in the bones. An oral temperature over 100.3 requires a trip to the emergency room to help prevent bacterial sepsis. 


Treatment: It is important to prevent an infection from happening by staying up to date on vaccinations. If your child gets an infection, your doctor may recommend some antibiotics to clear the infection. Taking antibiotics regularly may help prevent infections when your baby is between 2 months and 5 years of age.


Those altered red blood cells may restrict blood flow to the brain, which sometimes leads to a stroke. The most common symptoms include weakness on one side of the body, severe headache, and changes in speech, alertness, hearing, or vision. 


Treatment: Your child's healthcare provider will first notice these symptoms and then ask for an ultrasound, called Doppler ultrasound, to determine your child's risk for stroke.

Vision Loss

Blindness and other vision problems may happen when these cells block blood supply to your child's eyes. Sometimes, the cells block the blood flow to a specific part of the brain that leads to vision loss.

Treatment: A regular eye exam with an ophthalmologist is necessary to avoid such issues, but your doctor may also recommend additional eye treatment to prevent further damage.

More on major complications and their treatments from the CDC

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