sickle cell diseaseSickle cell disease (SCD) is a serious health condition that runs in families and can shorten life. In the United States, it affects more people who are black or African-American than other racial or ethnic groups. SCD, sometimes called sickle cell anemia, causes episodes or crises of intense pain. Also, it can cause pregnancy problems and other serious health problems throughout life. Treatment can lower the chance of complications and lengthen life.

What Causes Sickle Cell Disease?

All red blood cells have hemoglobin, which makes the cell red and helps carry oxygen to different parts of the body. Red blood cells with normal hemoglobin are round and flexible. If you have the disease, your red blood cells have abnormal hemoglobin and are crescent- or sickle-shaped.

Abnormal hemoglobin genes (sickle cell genes) run in families. Having two sickle cell genes causes SCD. If you get one sickle cell gene from each of your parents, then you have sickle cell disease. If you get one sickle cell gene and one normal gene from your parents, you have sickle cell trait.

Why Does it Cause Health Problems?

Red blood cells that are crescent- or sickle-shaped cannot slide smoothly through small blood vessels like healthy, round red blood cells. Sickle cells can get stuck in small blood vessels and block blood flow to organs and tissues in the body. When organs do not get enough blood, they do not get enough oxygen, which can cause organ damage and pain. When organs are damaged, they do not work correctly. Many of the complications and health problems caused by the disease result from organ damage or inflammation.

Sickle cells also die sooner than normal red blood cells. Not having enough healthy red blood cells causes anemia, which can make you feel tired or weak because there is less oxygen in your body.

How Does it Affect Women?

SCD can cause unique problems in women. In addition to the major complications, if you are a woman with sickle cell disease, you may also have:

  • Delayed puberty
  • More pain crises during the years you have your period and before and during your period
  • Problems during pregnancy for you and your baby
  • Problems getting pregnant due to sickle cell disease treatments
  • Pain during sex

How is it Diagnosed?

In the United States, all newborn babies receive testing for sickle cell disease.

Your doctor or nurse may do tests if you were not diagnosed as a baby but have symptoms as an adult. These tests may include blood tests or genetic testing.

If you are pregnant, you may choose to have a test called amniocentesis to see if your unborn baby has the disease. The doctor uses a needle to take a small amount of fluid from around the fetus inside your uterus (womb). Health risks for the unborn baby during amniocentesis are very rare but can be serious. Talk to your doctor, nurse, or midwife about the risks and benefits of testing.

If you have questions about sickle cell disease, call us at 479.582.9268 to make an appointment.


Center for Disease Control

Office of Women’s Health

U.S. National Library of Medicine