General health tips for people with sickle cell disease

Home treatment for sickle cell disease includes steps you can take not only to control pain symptoms but also to prevent some of the complications caused by the disease. If you and your doctor have developed a plan for home treatment of symptoms, be sure to follow your plan.

Prevent severe childhood infection.

  • Give your child with sickle cell disease regular doses of a prescribed antibiotic until age 5.
  • Get your child immunized on schedule. Standard immunizations include Haemophilus influenzae type B [Hib], hepatitis B, pneumococcal, and flu shots. For more information, see the topic Immunizations.

Avoid dehydration to prevent sickling.

  • Drink a lot of water and other fluids. Drink extra fluids before, during, and after exertion and when in the heat. Children should keep a water bottle with them during school, play, and outings.
  • Avoid alcohol. Alcohol use can lead to dehydration.

Avoid conditions that lower the oxygen levels in your blood.

  • Avoid high altitudes. The air at high altitudes, such as in an unpressurized airplane or in the mountains at altitudes greater than 5000 ft (1524 m), has less oxygen than at sea level. Most people won't have problems if they are flying only for a short time (less than 4 to 6 hours) on a commercial flight.
  • Avoid cigarette smoke. Smoking and secondhand smoke reduce the amount of oxygen in your bloodstream.

Manage and avoid stress. For more information, see the topic Stress Management.

Get plenty of sleep.Avoid fatigue.

Avoid cold temperatures and wind. Avoid cold air, wind, and water. Dress in layers in cold weather to avoid sudden temperature change. Cold temperatures can increase sickling and trigger a painful event.

Get an eye exam every year to prevent eye damage or blindness. Have your child's eyes checked during the newborn period and again at all routine well-child visits.1 And get routine eye exams as an adult. Try to go to a doctor who specializes in eye problems (ophthalmologist).

Educate yourself.

  • Learn to recognize serious symptoms. Partner with your doctor, using your experience with the disease and your doctor's expertise. Make a plan for how to treat pain at home and when to seek medical care for severe pain and symptoms. Serious warning signs include:
    • Fever higher than 101°F (38.33°C).
    • Severe cough.
    • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath.
    • Chest pain.
    • Severe abdominal (belly) pain.
    • Repeated vomiting or persistent diarrhea.
    • A sudden increase in the size of your or your child's spleen. (Learn from your doctor how to feel your child's spleen to monitor its size.)
    • Increased paleness.
    • Lightheadedness.
    • Sudden onset of weakness.
    • Sudden onset of numbness or tingling in the hands, feet, fingers, or toes (even if it goes away on its own).
    • Sudden development of poor balance and poor coordination when walking (even if it goes away on its own).
    • Confusion (even if it goes away on its own).
    • Garbled speech or an inability to speak (even if it goes away on its own).
    • Sudden change in vision.
    • Severe headache.
    • Loss of consciousness.
    • Persistent erection of the penis (priapism) that lasts more than 3 hours or is extremely painful.
    • Severe pain that can't be relieved with the usual prescription painkilling drugs or other pain-relief methods.
  • Learn about proper diet and dietary supplements.
    • A balanced diet helps keep the body's immune system strong. Your doctor or a nutritionist may be a good source of information about proper diet.
    • Folic acid supplements are often prescribed to aid the bone marrow's production of red blood cells.2
    • Getting the right nutrition on a daily basis will help children with sickle cell disease reach their full growth potential.

Citations

  1. American Academy of Pediatrics, et al. (2003, reaffirmed 2007). Policy statement: Eye examination in infants, children, and young adults by pediatricians. Pediatrics, 111(4): 902–907.
  2. Steinberg MH (2008). Sickle cell disease and associated hemoglobinopathies. In L Goldman, D Ausiello, eds., Cecil Medicine, 23rd ed., pp. 1217–1226. Philadelphia: Saunders Elsevier.

Last Updated: December 9, 2008

Author: Debby Golonka, MPH

Medical Review: Anne C. Poinier, MD - Internal Medicine & Martin Steinberg, MD - Hematology

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