Anemia is a condition that occurs in your body when you don’t have enough healthy red blood cells or hemoglobin to carry oxygen throughout the body to places that need it. In sickle cell, anemia occurs as a result of hemolysis, or the breakdown of red blood cells. Not getting enough oxygen to your organs, tissues and bones 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:

  • Feeling weak
  • Feeling tired
  • Less ability to do physical things
  • Difficulty thinking and concentrating

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

Please ensure that you complete any labs and screenings that your doctor requests.

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:

  • Blood and urine testing for renal disease, which is disease of the kidneys
  • Blood pressure testing to detect hypertension, also called high blood pressure
  • Eye examinations for retinopathy, which is damage to the retina of the eyes and can lead to vision impairment
  • Transcranial Doppler (TCD) ultrasound screening for stroke, which is caused by a sudden interruption of the blood supply to the brain
  • Testing for pulmonary hypertension, which refers to any disease that affects the lungs or respiratory system, can vary based on your doctor as many have different approaches. People with sickle cell and their caregivers should discuss whether these screenings make sense for them with their healthcare team