Sickle cell anemia is an inherited blood disorder that mostly affects people of African ancestry, but also occurs in other ethnic groups, including people who are of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern descent.

More than 70,000 Americans have sickle cell anemia. And about 2 million Americans — including 1 in 12 African Americans — have sickle cell trait, which means they carry a single gene for the disease and can pass this gene along to their children, but do not have the disease itself.

Signs and Symptoms

Teens with sickle cell anemia may develop jaundice (pronounced: jon-dis), a condition that results from the high rate of red blood cell breakdown. Jaundice can cause a person’s skin and whites of the eyes to develop a yellowish tint.

People with sickle cell anemia also may have bouts of severe pain in the chest, stomach, arms, legs, or other parts of the body. This is caused by sickle cells blocking blood flow through the small blood vessels in those areas. Feeling tired and having trouble fighting infections are also common among teens with sickle cell anemia, and they may grow more slowly and reach puberty later than other teens.

Periods of pain are commonly referred to as pain crises, which vary in their severity, how often they happen, and how long they last. Whereas one person may have only one sickle cell pain crisis a year, another may experience them more often. Crises can be brief or last hours, days, or even weeks. Sometimes pain can be severe enough to require treatment in the hospital. Symptoms can develop in any body organ or tissue and include aching arms, legs, hips, and shoulders.

When people with sickle cell disease get acute chest syndrome, they may have severe chest and abdominal pain, fever, cough, and trouble breathing.

What Can You Do to Stay Well?

With the right precautions, teens with sickle cell disease can do most of the stuff other teens do. To stay as healthy as possible, take these steps:

       Eat a balanced, healthy diet.

       Take medications, including folic acid supplements, as prescribed.

       Drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration.

       Avoid extreme cold or heat.

       Exercise regularly, but in moderation. Exercise is important for staying healthy, but overdoing it can trigger a crisis in some people, particularly if they become dehydrated, overheated, or exhausted.

       Get plenty of rest.

       Avoid alcohol, drugs, and smoking, which can aggravate sickle cell disease and its symptoms. Some people with sickle cell disease are prone to lung problems, so smoking is particularly risky and must be avoided.

       Avoid places low in oxygen. (For example, it’s not a good idea to go hiking at high altitudes or spend lots of time swimming under water.)

       Prevent serious infections by contacting your doctor as soon as illness symptoms start. Be sure to get any immunizations (such as pneumonia and flu vaccines) that the doctor recommends, and always call your doctor if you have a high fever (over 101°F, 38°C).

       Learn as much as you can about the disease and see your doctor regularly to help prevent complications.

       Teens with sickle cell disease may need to put some limits on their lives, but with the help of doctors, friends, and family, they can manage the condition and live their lives to the fullest.