What is Sickle Cell

What is Sickle Cell

What is it?

Sickle cell is a red blood cell disorder that is passed down from your parents the same way people get the color of their eyes, skin and hair. There is no way to catch sickle cell, it is not contagious.

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. 
  • Sickle cell begins with hemoglobin, the part of the red blood cell that carries oxygen. People with sickle cell have a special type of hemoglobin that does not carry oxygen as well. After sickle hemoglobin releases oxygen, it clumps together forming a stiff rod. This causes the red blood cell to become sickled, or banana-shaped.

How Do Sickled Cells Affect the Body

  • Sickled red blood cells are stiff and sticky, and don’t move freely throughout the blood vessels.
  • Sickled red blood cells can pile up and block blood flow like a traffic jam, keeping healthy red blood cells from carrying oxygen from getting where they need to go. This may prevent your organs from getting the oxygen they need.
  • Sickled red blood cells are also very fragile, causing them to break down more easily. When they break apart, everything is released from the red blood cell, including a substance called bilirubin. Too much bilirubin can cause the eyes and skin to turn yellow.
  • Because sickled red blood cells break down, there are less and less in the body to carry oxygen. When there are too few red blood cells carrying oxygen, anemia can result which causes people to feel weak and tired.

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 enough healthy red blood cells to carry oxygen 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?

Sickle cell affects about 100,000 people in the United States alone. People of African descent make up 90% of the population with sickle cell in the U.S. It also affects people of Hispanic, South Asian, Southern European and Middle Eastern ancestry. Sickle cell likely comes from evolution’s attempt to protect against malaria as it affects people whose ancestors came from parts of the world where malaria is most common. Having sickle cell trait helps protect a person from the harmful effects of malaria, even though it introduced other health problems in the process.