Complications of Sickle Cell Anemia
Sickle cell crises can affect many parts of the body and cause many complications.
1. Hand-Foot Syndrome
Sickle cells can block the small blood vessels in the hands and feet in children (usually those younger than 4 years of age). This condition is called hand-foot syndrome. It can lead to pain, swelling, and fever. Swelling often occurs on the back of the hands and feet and moves into the fingers and toes. One or both hands and/or feet may be affected at the same time.
2. Splenic Crisis
The spleen is an organ in the abdomen. Normally, it filters out abnormal red blood cells and helps fight infections. In some sickle cell cases, the spleen may trap red blood cells that should be in the bloodstream. This causes the spleen to grow large and leads to anemia.
Both children and adults who have sickle cell anemia may have a hard time fighting infections. This is because sickle cell anemia can damage the spleen, an organ that helps fight infections. Infants and young children who have damaged spleens are more likely to get serious infections that can kill them within hours or days. Bloodstream infections are the most common cause of death in young children who have sickle cell anaemia. Medicines and vaccines can help prevent severe illness and death. For example, vaccines are available for infections such as meningitis, influenza, and hepatitis. Getting treatment right away for high fevers (which can be a sign of a severe infection) also helps prevent death in infants and children who have sickle cell anemia.
4. Acute Chest Syndrome
Acute chest syndrome is a life-threatening condition linked to sickle cell anaemia. This syndrome is similar to pneumonia. An infection or sickle cells trapped in the lungs cause acute chest syndrome. People who have this condition often have chest pain, shortness of breath, and fever. They also often have low oxygen levels and abnormal chest x-ray results.
5. Pulmonary Hypertension
Damage to the small blood vessels in the lungs makes it hard for the heart to pump blood through the lungs. This causes blood pressure in the lungs to rise. Increased blood pressure in the lungs is called pulmonary hypertension (PH). Shortness of breath and fatigue are the main symptoms of Pulmonary Hypertension.
6. Delayed Growth and Puberty in Children
Children who have sickle cell anemia often grow more slowly than other children. They may reach puberty later. A shortage of red blood cells causes the slow growth rate. Adults who have sickle cell anemia often are slender or smaller in size than other adults.
Two forms of stroke can occur in people who have sickle cell anemia. One form occurs if a blood vessel in the brain is damaged and blocked. This type of stroke occurs more often in children than adults. The other form of stroke occurs if a blood vessel in the brain bursts. Either type of stroke can cause learning problems and/or lasting brain damage, long-term disability, paralysis (an inability to move), or death.
8. Eye Problems
Sickle cells also can affect the small blood vessels that deliver oxygen-rich blood to the eyes. Sickle cells can block these vessels or cause them to break open and bleed. This can damage the retinas—thin layers of tissue at the back of the eyes. The retinas take the images you see and send them to your brain.
This damage can cause serious problems, including blindness.
Males who have sickle cell anemia may have painful, unwanted erections. This condition is called priapism. It happens because the sickle cells block blood flow out of an erect penis. Over time, priapism can damage the penis and lead to impotence.
When red blood cells die, they release their haemoglobin. The body breaks down this protein into a compound called bilirubin. Too much bilirubin in the body can cause stones to form in the gallbladder, called gallstones.
Gallstones may cause steady pain that lasts for 30 minutes or more in the upper right side of the belly, under the right shoulder, or between the shoulder blades. The pain may happen after eating fatty meals.
People who have gallstones may have nausea (feeling sick to the stomach), vomiting, fever, sweating, chills, clay-colored stools, or jaundice (a yellowish colour of the skin or whites of the eyes).
11. Ulcers on the Legs
Sickle cell ulcers (sores) usually begin as small, raised, crusted sores on the lower third of the leg. Leg sores may occur more often in males than in females. These sores usually develop in people who are aged 10 years or older.
The cause of sickle cell ulcers isn't clear. The number of ulcers can vary from one to many. Some heal quickly, but others persist for years or come back after healing.
12. Multiple Organ Failure
Multiple organ failure is rare, but serious. It happens if you have a sickle cell crisis that causes two out of three major organs (lungs, liver, or kidneys) to fail. Often, multiple organ failure occurs during an unusually severe pain crisis.
Symptoms of this complication are fever, rapid heartbeat, problems breathing, and changes in mental status (such as sudden tiredness or confusion
How Is Sickle Cell Anemia Diagnosed?
Early diagnosis of sickle cell anaemia is very important. Children who have the disease need prompt and proper treatment.
The blood test can show whether a newborn infant has a form of sickle cell disease (like sickle cell anaemia) or sickle cell trait.
Doctors in specialist centres can diagnose sickle cell disease before birth. This is done using a sample of amniotic fluid or tissue taken from the placenta. (Amniotic fluid is the fluid in the sac surrounding a growing embryo. The placenta is the organ that attaches the umbilical cord to the mother's womb.)
Testing before birth can be done as early as 10 weeks into the pregnancy. This testing looks for the sickle cell gene, rather than the hemoglobin that the gene makes.
Dr. Olukayode Williams