Anemia is a condition that occurs in your body when you don’t have enough healthy red blood cells or hemoglobin to carry enough oxygen to your body’s tissues. This can be a problem because all of your tissues need oxygen to survive.

In sickle cell, anemia occurs as a result of hemolysis. Sickled red blood cells break down faster than the body can make new ones. When there aren’t enough red blood cells, there isn’t enough oxygen. Not getting enough oxygen to your organs and tissues may lead to silent damage and long-term complications that we sometimes don’t think about or notice.

Having anemia puts a lot of stress on the heart and blood vessels. They need to work harder than usual to pump blood to provide oxygen to the body.

  • Hemolysis: Breakdown of red blood cells
  • Anemia: Not enough red blood cells
  • Hemolysis → Anemia → Not enough oxygen to the body’s tissues and organs → This can lead to what we call silent damage

Illustrated chart showing the different lifespans between healthy red blood cells (120 days) and sickled red blood cells (10 to 20 days)

How Anemia Affects the Body

Anemia can lead to several short-term issues, including:

  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Less ability to do physical things
  • Difficulty thinking and concentrating
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes)

Anemia’s Link to Silent Damage

When somebody experiences anemia over a long period of time, it can also lead to silent damage to organs, including the:

  • Brain (which can lead to stroke)
  • Eyes
  • Heart and lungs
  • Liver and gallbladder
  • Spleen
  • Kidneys
  • Bones
  • Other organs

The importance of labs and screenings

At your routine clinic or doctor visit, your labs are checked for:

  • Hemoglobin
  • Red blood cell counts
  • Reticulocytes (also called “retics,” these are new or “baby” blood cells)

This information can tell you and your healthcare professional if you are making too few red blood cells, if too many of them are breaking down quickly, or any other changes that could lead to silent damage.

Additional screening recommendations that you can ask your doctor about include:

  • Renal disease, which is disease of the kidneys
  • Hypertension, also called high blood pressure
  • Retinopathy, which is damage to the retina of the eyes and can lead to vision impairment
  • Stroke, which is caused by a sudden interruption of the blood supply to the brain
  • Pulmonary Disease, which refers to any disease that affects the lungs or respiratory system