While there is no universal cure for sickle cell disease (yet), there are several therapeutic approaches to relieve symptoms, reduce complications, and extend life. Early treatment (by eight weeks) by a hematologist is critical for newborns. Beginning a course of prophylactic penicillin at age two months was a historic intervention in changing the course of childhood sickle cell survival.
The only cure for sickle cell disease is a bone marrow or stem cell transplant.
Most sickle cell disease transplants are currently performed in children who have had complications such as strokes, acute chest crises, and recurring pain crises. These transplants usually use a matched donor. Blood and bone marrow transplants are riskier in adults. Read more
Medicines can reduce or alleviate symptoms and complications and prolong life.
In children who have sickle cell disease, taking penicillin two times a day has been shown to reduce the chance of having a severe infection caused by the pneumococcus bacteria. Newborns need to take liquid penicillin. Older children can take tablets.
Many doctors will stop prescribing penicillin after a child has reached the age of 5. Some prefer to continue this antibiotic throughout life, particularly if a person has hemoglobin SS or hemoglobin Sβ0 thalassemia, since people who have sickle cell disease are still at risk. All people who have had surgical removal of the spleen, called a splenectomy, or a past infection with pneumococcus should keep taking penicillin throughout life.
Hydroxyurea is an oral medicine that has been shown to reduce or prevent several sickle cell disease complications. This medicine was studied in patients who have sickle cell disease, because it was known to increase the amount of fetal hemoglobin (hemoglobin F) in the blood. Increased hemoglobin F provides some protection against the effects of hemoglobin S.
Watch Dr. Shurney’s animated video about Hydroxyurea and how it works
Approved by the FDA for sickle cell use in 2017, Endari is an oral L-glutamine therapy for sickle cell disease and sickle cell thalassemia that reduces the acute complications of sickle cell disease in adults and children 5 years and older. It works by increasing the amount of glutamine in the blood. The added glutamine is taken up by the defective sickle cells, and when metabolized (broken down) results in the release of antioxidants.Common side effects include constipation, nausea, headache, abdominal pain, cough, pain in the extremities, back pain and chest pain.
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In 2019, the FDA also approved a new medicine to reduce the number of pain crises experienced by adults and children 16 years and older who have sickle cell disease. The medicine, which is given through an IV in the vein, helps prevent blood cells from sticking to blood vessel walls and causing blood flow blockage, inflammation, and pain crises. Possible side effects include nausea, joint pain, back pain, and fever.
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Downloadable patient brochure
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a new medicine in 2019 to treat sickle cell disease in adults and children 12 years and older. The oral medicine prevents red blood cells from forming the sickle shape and binding together. This may decrease the destruction of some red blood cells, which in turn lowers the risk for anemia and improves blood flow to your organs. Possible side effects include headache, diarrhea, abdominal pain, nausea, fatigue, and fever. Rarely, allergic reactions may occur, causing rashes, hives, or mild shortness of breath. Talk to your doctor about other medicines you take.
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Downloadable patient information leaflet
Transfusions are often used in acute or preventive situations.
Transfusions are administered to treat and prevent certain sickle cell disease complications. These transfusions may include:
Acute transfusion to treat complications that cause severe anemia. Doctors may also use transfusions when a patient has an acute stroke, in many cases of acute chest crises, and in multi-organ failure. A patient who has sickle cell disease usually receives blood transfusions before surgery, to prevent complications.
Red blood cell transfusions to increase the number of red blood cells and provide normal red blood cells that are more flexible than red blood cells with sickle hemoglobin.
Regular or ongoing blood transfusions for people who have had an acute stroke, to reduce the chances of having another stroke. Doctors also recommend blood transfusions for children who have abnormal transcranial Doppler (TCD) ultrasound results, because transfusions can reduce the chance of having a first stroke.
There are other treatments for specific complications. Be mindful that not all treatments work for everyone. Some people find success with alternative treatments as well, including medical marijuana (be knowledgeable about legalities that may impact school, work and overall health). To stay as healthy as possible, patients should be sure to get regular medical care that includes a pediatrician (for children) or primary care physician (for adults) and a hematologist and work with them to create the best individual care plan. Patients should also live a healthy lifestyle and avoid triggers that may cause a pain crisis.