Sickle Cell Disease
Sickle Cell Disease

Sickle Cell Disease Treatment


blood and bone marrow transplant is currently the only cure for some patients who have sickle cell disease. After early diagnosis, your doctor may recommend medicines or transfusions to manage complications, including chronic pain.

Babies who have sickle cell disease may see a hematologist, a doctor who specializes in blood diseases such as sickle cell disease. For newborns, the first sickle cell disease visit should take place before 8 weeks of age.


Medicine to prevent the sickling of red blood cells

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Voxelotor in 2019 to treat sickle cell disease in adults and children 12 years and older. The oral medicine prevents red blood cells from forming the sickle shape and binding together. This may decrease the destruction of some red blood cells, which in turn lowers the risk for anemia and improves blood flow to your organs.

Possible side effects include headache, diarrhea, abdominal pain, nausea, fatigue, and fever. Rarely, allergic reactions may occur, causing rashes, hives, or mild shortness of breath. Talk to your doctor about other medicines you take.

Medicine to reduce vaso-occlusive and pain crises

In 2019, the FDA approved crizanlizumab-tmca to reduce the number of pain crises experienced by adults and children 16 years and older who have sickle cell disease. The medicine, which is given through an IV in the vein, helps prevent blood cells from sticking to blood vessel walls and causing blood flow blockage, inflammation, and pain crises.

Possible side effects include nausea, joint pain, back pain, and fever.


Hydroxyurea is an oral medicine that has been shown to reduce or prevent several sickle cell disease complications.

  • Use in adults: Many studies of adults with hemoglobin SS or hemoglobin Sβ thalassemia showed that hydroxyurea reduced the number of episodes of pain crises and acute chest syndrome. It also improved anemia and decreased the need for transfusions and hospital admissions.
  • Use in children: Studies in children with severe hemoglobin SS or Sβ thalassemia showed that hydroxyurea reduced the number of vaso-occlusive crises and hospitalizations. A study of children between the ages of 9 and 18 months with hemoglobin SS or Sβ thalassemia also showed that hydroxyurea reduced the number of pain episodes and dactylitis. There is no information about how safe or effective hydroxyurea is in children under 9 months of age
  • Pregnancy: Pregnant people should not use hydroxyurea.

Since hydroxyurea can decrease several complications of sickle cell disease, most experts recommend that children and adults with hemoglobin SS or Sβ0 thalassemia who have frequent painful episodes, recurrent chest crises, or severe anemia take hydroxyurea daily.

Possible side effects include decreased white cell count or platelet count. Rarely, it can worsen anemia. These side effects usually go away quickly if a patient stops taking the medicine. When the patient restarts it, the doctor usually prescribes a lower dose.

It is still unclear whether hydroxyurea can cause problems later in life in people who have sickle cell disease and take the medicine for many years. Studies so far suggest that it does not put people at a higher risk of cancer and does not affect growth in children, but further studies are needed.

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Sickle Cell Disease: Hydroxyurea: What You Need to Know

Learn more about hydroxyurea. 

Medicine to reduce risk of infection

In children who have sickle cell disease, taking penicillin two times a day has been shown to reduce the chance of having a severe infection in the bloodstream. Newborns need to take liquid penicillin. Older children can take tablets.

Many doctors will stop prescribing penicillin after a child has reached the age of 5. Some prefer to continue this antibiotic throughout life, particularly if a person has hemoglobin SS or hemoglobin Sβ0 thalassemia, since people who have sickle cell disease are still at risk. All people who have had surgical removal of the spleen, called a splenectomy, or a past infection with pneumococcus should keep taking penicillin throughout life.



Your doctor may recommend transfusion to treat and prevent certain sickle cell disease complications.

These transfusions may include:

  • Acute transfusions treat complications that cause severe anemia. Doctors may also use transfusions when a patient has an acute stroke, in many cases of acute chest crises, and in multi-organ failure. A patient who has sickle cell disease usually receives blood transfusions before surgery, to prevent complications.
  • Red blood cell transfusions increase the number of red blood cells and provide normal red blood cells that are more flexible than red blood cells with sickle hemoglobin.
  • Regular or ongoing blood transfusions may help lower the chances of another stroke in people who have had an acute stroke.

Doctors also recommend blood transfusions for children who have abnormal transcranial Doppler (TCD) ultrasound results, because transfusions can reduce the chance of having a first stroke. Some doctors use this approach to treat complications that do not improve with hydroxyurea. Doctors may also use transfusions in people who have too many side effects from hydroxyurea. Possible complications include alloimmunization, which can make it hard to find a matching unit of blood for a future transfusion; infection; and iron overload.

Blood and bone marrow transplant

A blood and bone marrow transplant is currently the only cure for sickle cell disease, but it is not for everyone. Most patients who have sickle cell disease either are too old for a transplant or do not have a relative who is a good enough genetic match to be a donor. A well-matched donor is needed for a patient to have the best chance for a successful transplant.

Most sickle cell disease transplants are currently performed in children who have had complications such as strokes, acute chest crises, and recurring pain crises. These transplants usually use a matched donor. Blood and bone marrow transplants are riskier in adults.

Several medical centers are looking into new ways to help more people who have sickle cell disease get a transplant. These include blood and bone marrow transplant techniques in children and adults who do not have a matched donor in the family or who are older than most recipients.

Blood and bone marrow transplants are successful in about 85% of children when the donor is related and HLA (human leukocyte antigen)-matched. Even with this high success rate, transplants still have risks. Complications can include severe infections, seizures, and other clinical problems. About 5% of people who have received such transplants have died. Sometimes transplanted cells attack the recipient’s organs. This is called graft-versus-host disease. You will get medicine to prevent many of the complications, but they still can happen.

Learn more about blood and bone marrow transplants

Potential genetic therapy treatments

Researchers at the NHLBI are exploring ways genetic therapies may help develop new treatments or find a cure for sickle cell disease. Genetic therapies aim to treat or cure conditions by adding new DNA or changing existing DNA.

Genetic therapy involves either restoring a faulty or missing gene or adding a new gene that improves the way the cell works. Researchers take blood or bone marrow from a patient and modify their stem cells in a laboratory using genetic therapies.

Genetic therapies that modify a person’s own hematopoietic stem cells may provide a cure for people who have sickle cell disease and do not have a well-matched donor. Modified stem cells can be injected into the blood, then the cells travel in the bloodstream to the marrow spaces inside the bones. Once inside the bone marrow, the cells can produce healthy red blood cells that do not sickle.

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