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Treating Sickle Cell Anemia in Children

Your child has sickle cell anemia. This is a condition passed down through genes. It affects the red blood cells (RBCs), the cells that carry oxygen. Your child will see a pediatric hematologist for treatment. This doctor specializes in blood disorders (hematology). The goal is to help your child manage symptoms and prevent problems. This sheet tells you about treatments your child may get. Ask your health care provider if you have questions this sheet doesn’t answer.

Baby lying on back. Hand above baby is holding syringe getting ready to squirt medication into baby's mouth.

Early Treatments

Most newborns are tested for blood disorders like sickle cell anemia. If diagnosed, treatment starts right away. Early treatment includes the following:

  • Regular doctor visits. These are needed so the doctor can watch your child’s symptoms and overall health. A physical exam and routine blood tests are done to check for complications such as anemia or problems with the liver, kidneys, heart, or lungs. And, imaging tests such as a transcranial Doppler (TCD) ultrasound may be done to check the blood flow through blood vessels in the brain. This is to check your child’s risk of stroke.

  • Antibiotics. These help prevent dangerous infections. Give them to your child exactly as directed by the doctor.

  • Folate. This vitamin may be given to help your child build new RBCs and prevent anemia.

  • Vaccinations. Regular vaccinations help protect your child against dangerous infections. Be sure your child gets the pneumococcal, meningococcal, and flu vaccines.

Other Treatments

As your child gets older, treatments may change. Following are treatments that may be added to your child’s treatment plan. Each treatment has specific risks and benefits that the doctor will discuss with you. In severe cases, your child may need to be in the hospital.

  • Medications:

    • Hydroxyurea helps make the cells less likely to sickle. This helps prevent complications, such as pain episodes or acute chest syndrome.

    • Pain relievers help manage pain. Your child may get over-the-counter pain meds, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Prescription strength drugs may also be used. For severe pain, prescription pain meds called narcotics may be given.

    • Antibiotics, such as penicillin, help fight infections and illnesses.

  • Folate Your child’s doctor may prescribe folate to help make more RBCs.

  • Blood transfusions can:

    • Increase the number of RBCs if anemia is severe

    • Free trapped blood cells in the spleen

    • Reduce the risk of stroke

  • Surgery. In rare cases, surgery to remove the spleen or gallbladder may be needed.

  • Bone marrow transplant. This procedure may be advised for a child with severe symptoms. It replaces diseased bone marrow cells with healthy cells from a matched donor. You’ll be told more about this treatment if it is needed.

How to Prevent Complications

  • Learn and watch for signs and symptoms of illness, infection, or more serious health problems.

  • Make sure your child receives all recommended vaccinations.

  • Give medicine as prescribed by the doctor.

  • Have your child drink plenty of fluids.

  • Have your child avoid very hot or very cold temperatures. These can affect how well blood flows through the body.

When to Call the Doctor

Call the doctor if your child has any of the following:

  • Fever

  • Pain that doesn’t go away with pain medicine

  • Trouble breathing

  • Swelling of the hands or feet

  • Weakness in one side of body

  • Confusion

  • Erection that won’t go away

  • Pain in chest, stomach, legs

 

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