Treatment for sickle cell anemia is usually aimed at avoiding crises, relieving symptoms and preventing complications. Children older than 2 years and adults with sickle cell anemia should see a doctor at least once a year. Treatments might include medications to reduce pain and prevent complications, and blood transfusions, as well as a bone marrow transplant.
Bone marrow transplant
Bone marrow transplant, also known as stem cell transplant, offers the only potential cure for sickle cell anemia. It’s usually reserved for people younger than age 16 because the risks increase for people older than 16. Finding a donor is difficult, and the procedure has serious risks associated with it, including death.
A bone marrow transplant involves replacing bone marrow affected by sickle cell anemia with healthy bone marrow from a donor. The procedure usually uses a matched donor, such as a sibling, who doesn’t have sickle cell anemia. For many, donors aren’t available. But stem cells from umbilical cord blood might be an option.
Medications used to treat sickle cell anemia include:
- Antibiotics. Children with sickle cell anemia may begin taking the antibiotic penicillin when they’re about 2 months old and continue taking it until they’re at least 5 years old. Doing so helps prevent infections, such as pneumonia, which can be life-threatening to an infant or a case of sickle cell disease in children. As an adult, if you’ve had your spleen removed or had pneumonia, you might need to take penicillin throughout your life.
- Pain-relieving medications. To relieve pain during a sickle cell crisis.
- Hydroxyurea (Droxia, Hydrea). When taken daily, hydroxyurea reduces the frequency of painful crises and might reduce the need for blood transfusions and hospitalizations. Hydroxyurea seems to work by stimulating production of fetal hemoglobin — a type of hemoglobin found in newborns that helps prevent the formation of sickle cells. Hydroxyurea increases the risk of infections, and there is some concern that long-term use of this drug might cause problems later in life for people who take it for many years. More study is needed.
In a red blood cell transfusion, red blood cells are removed from a supply of donated blood, then given intravenously to a person with sickle cell anemia.
Blood transfusions increase the number of normal red blood cells in circulation, helping to relieve anemia. In children with sickle cell anemia at high risk of stroke, regular blood transfusions can decrease the risk. Transfusions can also be used to treat other complications of sickle cell anemia, or they can be given to prevent complications.
Blood transfusions carry some risk, including infection and excess iron buildup in your body. Because excess iron can damage your heart, liver and other organs, people who undergo regular transfusions might need treatment to reduce iron levels.
Lifestyle and home remedies
Taking the following steps to stay healthy may help you avoid complications of sickle cell anemia:
- Take folic acid supplements daily, and choose a healthy diet. Bone marrow needs folic acid and other vitamins to make new red blood cells. Your doctor might recommend a folic acid supplement. Choose a diet that focuses on a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables, as well as whole grains.
- Drink plenty of water. Dehydration can increase your risk of a sickle cell crisis. Drink water throughout your day, aiming for about eight glasses a day. Increase the amount of water you drink if you exercise or spend time in a hot, dry climate.
- A void temperature extremes. Exposure to extreme heat or cold can increase your risk of a sickle cell crisis.
- Exercise regularly, but don’t overdo it. Talk with your doctor about how much exercise is right for you.