Overview of Sickle Cell Disease

Cells in tissues need a steady supply of oxygen to work well. Normally, hemoglobin in red blood cells takes up oxygen in the lungs and carries it to all the tissues of the body.

Red blood cells that contain normal hemoglobin are disc shaped (like a doughnut without a hole). This shape allows the cells to be flexible so that they can move through large and small blood vessels to deliver oxygen.

Sickle hemoglobin is not like normal hemoglobin. It can form stiff rods within the red cell, changing it into a crescent, or sickle shape.

Sickle-shaped cells are not flexible and can stick to vessel walls, causing a blockage that slows or stops the flow of blood. When this happens, oxygen can’t reach nearby tissues.

Normal Red Cells and Sickle Red Cells


An image that shows the difference between a normal red blood cell verses  a sickle cell with abnormal (sickle) hemoglobin
Figure A shows normal red blood cells flowing freely in a blood vessel. The inset image shows a cross-section of a normal red blood cell with normal hemoglobin. Figure B shows abnormal, sickled red blood cells blocking blood flow in a blood vessel. The inset image shows a cross-section of a sickle cell with abnormal (sickle) hemoglobin forming abnormal stiff rods.


The lack of tissue oxygen can cause attacks of sudden, severe pain, called pain crises. These pain attacks can occur without warning, and a person often needs to go to the hospital for effective treatment.

Most children with SCD are pain free between painful crises, but adolescents and adults may also suffer with chronic ongoing pain.

The red cell sickling and poor oxygen delivery can also cause organ damage. Over a lifetime, SCD can harm a person’s spleen, brain, eyes, lungs, liver, heart, kidneys, penis, joints, bones, or skin.

Sickle cells can’t change shape easily, so they tend to burst apart or hemolyze. Normal red blood cells live about 90 to 120 days, but sickle cells last only 10 to 20 days.

The body is always making new red blood cells to replace the old cells; however, in SCD the body may have trouble keeping up with how fast the cells are being destroyed. Because of this, the number of red blood cells is usually lower than normal. This condition, called anemia, can make a person have less energy.



Source: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, National Institutes of Health.