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What Is a Sickle Cell Crisis?

Sickle cell disease is an inherited disorder that causes red blood cells (RBCs) to produce an abnormal amount of hemoglobin, a protein that carries oxygen. Sometimes these cells become crescent or “sickle” -shaped instead of round, making it difficult for them to pass through small blood vessels. When blood flow is restricted and RBCs can’t get to the body’s organs, it’s called a sickle cell crisis.

Normal Blood
               Flow (Sickle Cell)

Sickle Cell Flow

Sickle Cell Episode

A sickle cell crisis is a medical emergency, which requires immediate medical attention. Children who do not get medical treatment may develop long-term organ damage.

The most common sign of a sickle cell crisis is extreme pain in the chest or stomach. Some kids have trouble breathing or shortness or breath. Other symptoms may include:

  • a fever of 101˚ (38˚ C) or higher
  • pain that does not go away after oral medicine
  • extreme fatigue
  • severe headache or dizziness
  • jaundice (yellowing of the skin) or extreme paleness
  • painful erection in males
  • sudden change of vision
  • seizures
  • weakness or inability to move any body parts
  • slurring of speech
  • loss of consciousness
  • numbing or tingling

See a doctor or call 911 right away if your child experiences any of these symptoms.

Children with sickle cell disease can lower their risk for a sickle cell crisis by taking all medicines recommended by their doctor and staying hydrated. In addition, it’s important to:

  • avoid extreme temperatures
  • limit activities that stress the body’s use of oxygen (such as intense weight training, mountain climbing, scuba diving, etc.)
  • wash hands frequently or use a hand sanitizer (especially before eating), and stay away from sick people who may pass on germs that cause infection

Since children with sickle cell disease have weakened immune systems due to a loss of healthy RBCs, it's especially important for them to stay up-to-date on immunizations to protect against serious illness.

Date reviewed: January 2010