Health Complications of Sickle Cell Anemia

Sickle cell disease is a condition where the body makes defective red blood cells that have a peculiar sickle shape. It is a genetic disease which, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), affects between 70,000 to 100,000 Americans.

According to the heart lung and blood Institute, the abnormal red blood cells become stiff and sticky, causing them to clump together and block blood vessels. Blocked vessels cause pain, infection and tissue damage in affected organs.

Hand-Foot Syndrome

According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), this may be the first manifestation of sickle cell disease in infants. It results from the blocking of small arteries in the hands or feet or both by the sickle-shaped cells. The hands and feet become swollen and very tender to touch.

Splenic crisis

The spleen acts as a filter to remove defective blood cells from the blood stream. It can get clogged and swollen with these defective blood cells.The CDC reports that this can become life threatening. Severe anemia requiring blood transfusion remains a major outcome of this crisis. Splenic damage presents another outcome, leading to the loss of the disease fighting functions of the spleen.

Vision Loss

Small blood vessels in the eye can become clogged, leading to damage in the retina, the light sensitive lining of the eyes. This could produce defects in the visual field and even outright blindness.


The American Heart Association says that children with Sickle cell disease prove over 200 times more likely to suffer a stroke than other children. Stroke develops when arteries in the brain burst or become clogged with the sticky defective cells.

According to the NHLBI, stroke in children can result in learning disabilities, paralyses, long-term disability and death.


Information from the NHLBI states that pneumonia is the major cause of death in children with sickle cell disease. Other infections common in sickle cell disease include meningitis, influenza and hepatitis. By damaging the spleen, sickle cell disease makes it easier for these life-threatening infections to overrun the immune system.

Acute Chest Syndrome and Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension

Clogged arteries in the lungs could become infected leading to the life threatening acute chest syndrome. Repeated episodes of the acute chest syndrome could lead to eventual damage in the lungs to the extent that the heart finds it difficult to push blood through the arteries of the lungs, a condition called pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH).

Delayed Growth and Puberty

The long-standing anemia characteristic of sickle cell disease leads to slowed growth rate and development in children with delayed development of puberty. According to the NHLBI, this leads to smaller and more slender stature in adulthood.

Other complications

Small vessels in the penis can get clogged, leading to persistent and painful erection, called priapism. If untreated, this could result in impotence.
Small ulcers on the legs also prove common in children with sickle cell. The cause of the ulcers is not clear.

Blood vessels in the bones can become clogged with damage and infection resulting in a condition called osteomyelitis.

Large-scale breakdown of the defective cells leads to an accumulation of pigments in the liver. The pigments could cause the development of gall stones in the gall bladder or bile duct.

Apart from the spleen, the liver, lungs or kidneys may also get damaged by clogged arteries, resulting in organ damage.

About this Author

IkechiK is an international medical graduate with U.S credentials and over 15 years of general medical practice experience in diverse cultural backgrounds. He has been delivering health education talks and writing health related content during that period for diverse audiences, from small group periodicals to informational websites. Based in Alexandria, IkechiK is pursuing further studies in Preventive Medicine.