What is Sickle Cell

What is Sickle Cell

What is it?

Sickle cell is a red blood cell disorder. It is inherited. That means that it’s passed down the same way people get the color of their eyes, skin, and hair from their parents. For a child to inherit sickle cell, both parents need to carry the gene for it. There is no way to catch sickle cell and it is not contagious. You are born with it.

Healthy red blood cells and sickled blood cell illustrations

  • Healthy red blood cells are smooth, round, and bendable so they can easily flow through blood vessels and carry oxygen to every part of the body. 
  • In sickle cell disease, red blood cells can change shape and form a sickle, or crescent. The cells become stiff and sticky, causing them to block blood flow and break down inside the blood vessels.

 

How Do Sickled Cells Affect the Body

  • These crescent moon-shaped sickle cells can catch on one another or stick to the blood vessel walls. When this happens, it is difficult for them to squeeze through the tiny blood vessels.
  • These sickle cells can create pile-ups, which may prevent your organs from getting the oxygen they need.

 

Bloodstream illustrations comparing healthy hemoglobin and sickle cell hemoglobin

Sickle Cell FAQs?

Why am I so much more tired than other people?

There are many possible reasons, including anemia. Here’s why fatigue can happen in people with sickle cell:

  • Because sickle cells don’t live as long as healthy cells, your body usually doesn’t have enough red blood cells. The hemolysis, or breakdown of red blood cells, also reduces that number
  • Anemia is a condition caused by a lack of oxygen being transported throughout the body
  • Anemia may cause you to feel very tired because your body’s tissues aren’t getting enough oxygen delivered to them

Why does sickle cell cause pain?

Sickle cell pain happens when sickled blood cells get stuck in blood vessels. Because of their shape, stiffness, and stickiness, sickled cells don’t slide past each other smoothly like round red blood cells do. Instead, they can catch on each other and form pile-ups. These pile-ups mean that your organs and tissues may not be getting the oxygen that they need.

Who has sickle cell and why?

About 100,000 people in the United States have sickle cell. Here’s how it breaks down:

  • People of African descent make up 90% of the population with sickle cell in the United States
  • Sickle cell also affects people of Hispanic, South Asian, Southern European and Middle Eastern ancestry
  • Sickle cell affects people whose ancestors came from parts of the world where malaria is common. Sickle cell can affect these populations because having the sickle cell trait helps protect a person from the harmful effects of malaria
  • Sickle cell likely comes from evolution’s attempt to protect against malaria, even though it introduced other health problems in the process.

World map with malaria-endemic regions highlighted