ATLANTA - Sickle cell disease is the most common inherited blood disorder in the United States. The disease affects 70,000 to 100,000 Americans and is most prevalent among African Americans, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. About one in 500 African Americans has the disease, and one in 12 carry the sickle cell trait.
Here's some basic information about sickle cell disease.
What Is Sickle Cell Disease?
Normal red blood cells are disc-shaped and look like donuts without holes in the center, traveling easily through the blood vessels. But in sickle cell, the red blood cells are shaped like sickles or "C's." These irregularly shaped cells are rigid and sticky. They often form clumps, which can slow or block blood flow and oxygen throughout the body causing pain, serious infections, and organ damage.
How Do You Get It?
Sickle cell disease is passed from parent to child like eye color, blood type and other physical characteristics. People who have the sickle cell trait often have no symptoms. Ask your health care provider for a blood test so that you can know for sure.
What Are the Symptoms?
Sickle cell anemia is present at birth, but many infants don't show any signs until after four months of age. Symptoms of sickle cell anemia vary. Some people have mild symptoms while others have very severe complications and must be hospitalized for treatment. Some of the most common symptoms are fatigue; acute chest syndrome that causes breathing problems; pain in the arm and leg bones, the chest, abdomen, and back; frequent infections; swollen hands and feet; and vision problems.
In addition to these symptoms, stroke is a serious complication of sickle cell disease, especially in children. Cells obstruct blood flow to the brain, and oxygen can't get past the blockage, which causes the stroke. Signs of stroke include seizures, weakness or numbness of the arms and legs, sudden speech difficulties, and loss of consciousness.
If you know you have sickle cell disease, the key is to do your best to stay as healthy as possible. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests the following tips:
* Get regular checkups – Regular health checkups with a primary care doctor can help prevent some serious complications.
* Prevent infections – Common illnesses such as the flu can quickly become dangerous for a child with sickle cell disease.
* Drink plenty of water – People with sickle cell disease should drink as much water as possible, at least eight glasses of water every day. Eating healthy food is also important.
* Look for clinical studies – New clinical research studies are being conducted all the time to find better treatments and, hopefully, a cure for sickle cell disease.
* Get support – Find a patient-support group or other organization in your community that can provide information, assistance and support.
All states now mandate the testing of newborns for sickle cell disease as part of their newborn screening programs, but we can do more to raise awareness of the disease. For its part, UnitedHealthcare has teamed up with the American Heart Association and Stroke Association's "Power to End Stroke Campaign" (www.powertoendstroke.org) to promote early screening and educate African Americans about the connection between sickle cell disease and stroke.
While there is no cure yet for sickle cell disease, people who have it can still live well and long. The first step is to find out if you have the disease or the trait. Then you can discuss treatment options with your doctor to ensure your best outcome, reduce the risk of complications and pass down a legacy of good health to the next generation.