Sickle cell anemia is a lifelong disorder that requires regular medical care. The goals of standard treatment for sickle cell anemia are to reduce pain and other symptoms and prevent complications. Research to develop new treatments for SCD is ongoing.
New guidelines for managing sickle cell disease were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in September 2014. These guidelines emphasize the importance of medications (e.g., oral penicillin, hydroxyuria), blood transfusions, vaccinations, and transcranial Doppler ultrasound in SCD treatment.
Lifestyle Measures to Reduce Symptoms of Sickle Cell Anemia
People with sickle cell anemia can take a number of steps to manage their condition and help reduce symptoms. The following measures also can help prevent SCD complications:
- Learn to recognize the warning signs of serious complications like infection, stroke, etc.
- Adopt a healthy lifestyle (eat right, exercise without overdoing it, get enough sleep, do not smoke) and ask your health care provider about dietary supplements.
- Drink plenty of fluids.
- Avoid decongestants, which can constrict blood vessels.
- Avoid getting too hot or too cold. Also avoid high altitudes and other situations that can expose you to low oxygen levels.
- Manage other chronic health problems such as diabetes, arthritis, high blood pressure, etc.
- Reduce stress in your life and talk to your health care provider if you develop symptoms of anxiety or depression.
- Join a support group for people who have SCD and/or family members and friends.
- Talk to your health care provider about other ways to stay healthy.
Treatment Options for Sickle Cell Anemia
Most infants and young children under the age of 5 who have sickle cell anemia are treated with penicillin or other antibiotics to help prevent infection. Adults and children should receive all recommended vaccines (immunizations) as directed by their hematologist (physician that specializes in blood disorders) or other health care provider.
Sickle cell anemia treatment options varydepending on the symptoms. Common treatments include the following:
- Increased fluids (by mouth or through an IV)
- Pain medications (e.g., acetaminophen, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs [NSAIDs], opioids [narcotic pain relievers])
- Hydroxyurea (daily oral medication that promotes production of fetal hemoglobin [hemoglobin F], which helps prevent red blood cells from sticking together and improves anemia; this medication increases infection risk)
- Blood transfusions to treat severe anemia
- Antibiotics to treat infections
- Regular eye exams to detect vision problems and dental exams to prevent infection
- Transcranial Doppler ultrasound to evaluate stroke risk (after the age of 2)
- Hospitalization and treatment (e.g., oxygen therapy, medications, surgery, other treatments) for severe complications of sickle cell anemia
Emerging Treatments for SCD
Bone marrow or stem cell transplants may cure sickle cell anemia in a small number of people with the disorder, but the procedures carry serious risks. These treatments are used only in certain children with severe sickle cell anemia and minimal organ damage.
Several studies are being conducted to help develop new medications and treatment options for people with sickle cell disease. Some of this research is centered on gene therapy. For example, inducing a normal gene into the stem cells of a person with sickle cell anemia could promote the formation healthy red blood cells. Researchers also are trying to determine if it's possible to use gene therapy to "switch off" the sickle hemoglobin gene in people with the disorder.
Although early diagnosis and advances in treatment have improved the outlook for many people with sickle cell anemia, more research is needed and the disorder continues to reduce life expectancy.
Sources: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health (NIH); U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)