a nurse talking to a woman living with sickle cell anemia

Living with Sickle Cell Anemia

Living with a potentially fatal disease such as sickle cell anemia involves a great deal of careful effort, but it is more than possible to survive and even thrive. However, it won’t happen without a lifelong commitment to managing and preventing sickle cell crisis. A crisis occurs when sickle-shaped red blood cells clump together and block blood flow, causing severe pain and possibly damaging organs.

Managing a Crisis

Because there is no cure for sickle cell anemia, your life will involve dodging symptoms as best you can, and sometimes, no matter how faithful you are to take care of your health, a crisis may still ensue. In those times, seeking emergency medical attention as quickly as possible could save your life from complications such as stroke, pulmonary hypertension, acute chest syndrome, and organ damage. Here are some things you can also do to minimize your risk during less threatening times of crisis:

  • Taking your prevention medications, such as hydroxyurea and antibiotics, regularly will help you avoid illness; staying on top of your pain medicine will help you cope with pain caused by sickle cell anemia.
  • Learning to recognize symptoms early on will provide you with more time to seek medical help and minimize symptoms.
  • Staying hydrated will help prevent sickling.
  • Breathing with the help of prescribed supplemental oxygen will elevate the oxygen levels in your blood.
  • Maintaining good hygiene and wound care will help prevent skin ulcers from becoming infected.
  • Participating in clinical studies may grant you access to newer forms of treatment.

Preventing a Crisis

There are actions you can take that may keep a sickle cell crisis at bay. There are many things you can do to make sure your body doesn’t get too low on blood supply or to help prevent your banana-shaped blood cells from clogging up your blood vessels:

  • Learning about sickle cell anemia and the many life-threatening complications will help you recognize when you are nearing a danger zone.
  • Avoiding dehydration by drinking plenty of water will help avoid a pain crisis. When it is hot, while you exercise, or when you have consumed diuretics, you may need to drink extra water to make up for the water that was lost.
  • Increasing the amount of vitamins you consume through a healthy diet and taking vitamin supplements, such as folic acid, may help stimulate red blood cell production.
  • Engaging in mild levels of exercise while avoiding overexertion can promote physical and psychological health.
  • Staying mindful of elevation changes that may constrict your blood vessels and increase the chances of blockages will help you coordinate with your doctor before traveling and take necessary precautions to avoid a sickle crisis.
  • Dressing warmly in cold weather and cooly in hot weather will help your body avoid the temperature extremes that put you at risk.
  • Checking with your doctor before taking over-the-counter medications with also help you avoid drugs that may cause vasoconstriction and blockages.
  • Washing your hands as frequently as possible and getting a yearly flu shot will help minimize your exposure to harmful bacteria and viruses.
  • Preparing for crises by ensuring you will have access to your medical team when you need them.
  • Surrounding yourself with supportive people and communicating effectively with your physicians can help improve your outlook and overall mental health.
Last Updated: November 28, 2016