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What Is Sickle Cell Anemia?

Sickle cell anemia is a serious disease in which the body makes abnormally shaped red blood cells. Normal red blood cells are smooth and round like a doughnut without a hole. They move easily through blood vessels to carry oxygen to all parts of the body. In sickle cell anemia, the body produces red blood cells that are shaped like a sickle (or crescent). These "sickle cells" are hard and sticky and they don't move easily through blood vessels. They tend to get stuck and block the flow of blood to the limbs and organs. This can cause pain, organ damage, and a low blood count (anemia).

Sickle cell anemia is an inherited (genetic) disorder. People who have sickle cell anemia are born with it. It is a lifelong disease.

The sickle-shaped red blood cells tend to get stuck in blood vessels, blocking the flow of blood.

Sickle cell anemia affects millions of people. Effective treatments exist for the symptoms and complications of the disease, but in most cases there is no cure. (Some researchers believe that bone marrow transplantation may offer a cure in a small percentage of cases.) Over the past 30 years, doctors have learned a great deal about the disease. They know what causes it, how it affects your body, and how to treat many of the complications. Today, with good health care, many people with the disease:

Are in reasonably good health much of the time

Live fairly normal lives

Live 40 to 50 years or more


Anemia is the term for having a shortage of red blood cells in your blood. In sickle cell anemia, this shortage of red blood cells occurs because sickle cells do not last very long. Red blood cells are produced in the spongy marrow inside the large bones of the body. The bone marrow constantly makes new red blood cells to replace old ones. Normal red blood cells last about 120 days in the bloodstream and then die. Sickle cells die much faster, usually after only about 10 to 20 days. The bone marrow can't make new red blood cells fast enough to replace the dying ones, so anemia (low level of red blood cells) results.

Sickle Cell Trait Versus Anemia

The condition called sickle cell trait is different from sickle cell anemia. A person with sickle cell trait does not have the disease but carries the gene that causes the disease. People with sickle cell trait can pass the gene on when they have children. For more information on sickle cell trait, see the section on What Causes Sickle Cell Anemia.



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