Sickle Cell Anemia
Signs and Symptoms

Children with sickle cell anemia may develop a variety of related symptoms, ranging in severity. And while some children with the condition are usually healthy, others may experience frequent problems, including:

  • Acute Chest Syndrome — This is a potentially life-threatening condition that should be treated in a hospital. Caused by an infection or blocked blood vessels in the lung, the condition is similar to pneumonia.

  • Anemia — Red blood cells containing hemoglobin S do not live as long as normal red blood cells, resulting in a low blood count, a condition called anemia.

  • Hand-Foot Syndrome — Often the first symptom in affected babies, occurring with a fever, hands and feet swell when blood vessels become blocked by sickle cells.

  • Infections — Infants and children with sickle cell disease are especially prone to bacterial infections, such as those that cause meningitis and blood infections. Such infections are a leading cause of death in infants and young children with sickle cell disease. They can be prevented by immunization and prophylactic penicillin.

  • Pain Episodes — The most common symptom of sickle cell disease, pain episodes occur in any place in the body where sickle cells collect and block blood vessels. Episodes vary in length and frequency for each person.

  • Slow Growth — Anemia may cause a child to have slow growth, delayed puberty, pale complexion, tire easily and experience shortness of breath.

  • Stroke — An estimated 10 percent of children with sickle cell anemia develop symptoms of a stroke, which occurs when a blood vessel in the brain becomes blocked, and another 20 percent are found to have clinically silent strokes by MRI imaging of their brains. Stroke may result in permanent disability or learning problems. However, doctors are now able to identify most children who are at an increased risk of having a symptomatic stroke with a special ultrasound exam.

  • Tissue Damage — When sickle cells block small blood vessels, the amount of blood received by certain parts of the body is reduced. Tissue that does not receive an adequate amount of blood will eventually become damaged.

  • Vision Problems — Vision problems and in some cases, blindness, may occur when blood vessels in the eye become blocked by sickle cells.

Reviewed by health care specialists at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital.

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