Sickle Cell Symptoms Can Change Throughout Life

Sickle cell is present from the start of life — you are born with it. It’s hard to know how it will behave in newborns. Infants usually don’t have symptoms in the first few months of life because the fetal hemoglobin produced before birth protects the red blood cells from sickling. A baby may start to have symptoms by six months of age. If you notice any symptoms, be sure to discuss them with your doctor.

Symptoms In Babies & Toddlers:

  • A yellowish color of the skin (jaundice) or whites of the eyes (icterus), which occurs when a large number of red blood cells break apart
  • Fatigue or fussiness because of anemia
  • Painful swelling of the hands and feet (dactylitis)
  • Not making enough red blood cells (anemia)
  • Blood getting trapped in the spleen (acute splenic sequestration)
  • Frequent infections

Most of the symptoms of sickle cell are related to complications of the disease. Some, such as fatigue, anemia, pain episodes and bone problems, can occur at any age.

Symptoms In Teens & Young Adults

Teens and young adults may develop leg ulcers, avascular necrosis (death of bone tissue due to lack of blood supply), acute chest syndrome, and eye damage.

Symptoms In Adults

Adults generally have pain crises caused by an injury to a bone, muscle or internal organs.

Listen To Your Body So You Can Manage Your Symptoms

To manage sickle cell day to day, it’s a good idea to:

  • Become aware of your body. Don’t dismiss what it’s trying to tell you.
  • Be alert for warning signs.
  • Talk with your healthcare provider about your symptoms. Seeking treatment early can keep symptoms from turning into complications.

Some common symptoms you might have to manage with your sickle cell include:


People with sickle cell, especially infants and children, are more likely to get infections. These infections can include:

  • The flu (influenza)
  • Infection in the brain or spinal cord (meningitis)
  • Infection in the liver (hepatitis)
  • Pneumonia 

Hand-Foot Syndrome

When sickled cells get stuck in the blood vessels, it blocks blood flow to the arms and legs. That causes swelling in the hands and feet. Fever may occur as well. This most often happens in children under six years old. About half of children with sickle cell will have this.

Eye Problems

Sickle cell can affect the blood vessels in the eyes. That can lead to long-term damage, including loss of vision. The retina is the place where damage usually occurs. The retina is the part of the eye that senses light and sends visual messages to the brain. When it is not working blindness can result.

Leg Ulcers

Sickle cell ulcers are sores that usually start small and then get bigger.

Some ulcers will heal quickly, and others may take longer to heal. Some ulcers come back even after they’ve healed. These ulcers usually start after the age of 10 years.

Joint Complications

Sickle cell can block blood vessels leading to the joints. That means that less blood goes to the hips, shoulders, knees and ankles, which might cause damage.

Symptoms include pain and problems with walking and joint movement.

Delayed Growth And Puberty

Because of their anemia, children with sickle cell may grow and develop at a slower pace than other children, and they may take longer to reach puberty.


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November 2023.

This website is intended for U.S. residents.

The information provided is for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace discussions with a healthcare provider.