Sickle Cell symptoms can change throughout your lifetime

The severity and clinical expression of Sickle Cell is unpredictable in newborns. Infants usually do not develop symptoms in the first few months of life because the fetal hemoglobin produced before birth protects the red blood cells from sickling. A baby may start to have symptoms by 6 months of age. Infants with Sickle Cell Disease are at risk for life-threatening complications including infection, not making enough red blood cells (aplastic anemia), blood getting trapped in the spleen (acute splenic sequestration), and swelling and inflammation of the hands and feet (dactylitis).

Early symptoms of Sickle Cell may include:

  • A yellowish color of the skin, known as jaundice, or whites of the eyes, known as icterus, that occurs when a large number of red cells break apart
  • Fatigue or fussiness from anemia
  • Painful swelling of the hands and feet, known as dactylitis
  • Frequent infections

Most of the symptoms of Sickle Cell are related to complications of the disease. Some features of Sickle Cell, such as fatigue, anemia, pain crises, and bone infarcts can occur at any age. Many features typically occur in certain age groups.

Anemia from Sickle Cell usually begins in the first year of life. Babies and toddlers are also at risk for bacterial infections, painful swelling in the hands and feet (dactylitis), and blood getting trapped in the spleen (splenic sequestration).

In contrast, teens and young adults may develop leg ulcers, avascular necrosis (also known as aseptic necrosis), Acute Chest Syndrome, and eye damage.

Adults generally have pain crises caused by an injury to a bone, muscle, or internal organs.

Listen to your body so you can manage your symptoms

Become aware of your body, be alert for warning signs for these issues, and talk to your doctor about your symptoms. Seeking treatment early helps lower risks of them turning into complications. It can be challenging to monitor your symptoms every day, but it can set you up for better success with managing them.


Anemia is a decrease in the number of red blood cells resulting in a lowered ability of the blood to carry enough oxygen. People with Sickle Cell usually have mild to moderate anemia. At times, however, they can have severe anemia, which can be life threatening.


People with Sickle Cell, especially infants and children, are more likely to experience harmful infections such as influenza, meningitis (infection in the brain or spinal cord), and hepatitis (infection in the liver).

Hand-Foot Syndrome:

Swelling in the hands and feet, often accompanied by a fever, is caused by sickle cells getting stuck in the blood vessels and blocking blood flow to the extremities. This most often happens in children under 6 years of age. About half of children with Sickle Cell will experience this.

Eye Problems:

Sickle Cell can affect the blood vessels in the eye, which can lead to long-term damage including vision loss. The most common site of damage is the retina, where blood vessels can overgrow, get blocked, or bleed. The retina is the light-sensitive layer of tissue that lines the inside of the eye and sends visual messages to the brain.

Leg ulcers:

Sickle cell ulcers are sores that usually start small and then get bigger and bigger.
Some ulcers will heal quickly, but others may not heal and may last for long periods of time. Some ulcers come back even after healing. People with Sickle Cell usually don’t get ulcers until after the age of 10.

Joint complications:

Sickle Cell blocks can lead to less blood getting to the bones of the hips, shoulders, knees, and ankles, which might cause damage. This damage is a condition called avascular or aseptic necrosis. This is usually found in adolescents and adults. Symptoms include pain and problems with walking and joint movement.

Delayed growth and puberty:

Children who have Sickle Cell may grow and develop more slowly than their peers because of anemia. They will reach full sexual maturity, but this may be delayed.