The main thing you can do to reduce your chances of experiencing pain (Sickle cell episode or crisis) is to try avoiding possible triggers.
This may mean you need to:
- drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration
- wear appropriate clothing to stop you from getting cold
- avoid sudden temperature changes, such as swimming in cold water
- be careful at high altitudes – the lack of oxygen at high altitudes may trigger a crisis (travelling by air shouldn’t be a problem because planes are pressurised to maintain a steady oxygen level, but sometimes they are)
- avoid very strenuous exercise – people with sickle cell disease should be active, but intense activities that cause you to become seriously out of breath are best avoided
- avoid alcohol and smoking – alcohol can cause you to become dehydrated and smoking can trigger a serious lung condition called acute chest syndrome
- relax – stress can trigger a sickle cell crisis, so it may help to learn relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises
If you experience a sickle cell crisis, you can usually manage it at home. The following can help:
- take over-the-counter painkillers, such as paracetamol or ibruprofen (aspirin should not be given to children under 16) – if the pain is more severe, your GP may prescribe stronger painkillers
- ensure you have plenty to drink
- use a warm towel or a heated pad to gently massage the affected body part – many pharmacies sell pads that can be used for this purpose
- try suitable distractions to take your mind off the pain– for example, children might like to read a story, watch a film or play their favourite computer game
Contact your Doctor if these measures don’t work or the pain is particularly severe. If this isn’t possible, go to the hospital. Moreover treatment with very strong painkillers (such as morphine) in hospital for a few days may be needed.
Sickle cell disease can also cause a number of other problems that may need to be treated. For example:
- a short course of hormonal medication may be prescribed to help trigger puberty in children with delayed puberty
- gallstones may be treated with gallbladder removal surgery
- bone and joint pain can be treated with painkillers, although more severe cases may require surgery
- persistent priapism (a persistent and painful erection) may require medication to stimulate blood flow or using a needle to drain blood from the penis
- leg ulcers can be treated by cleaning the ulcer and dressing it with a bandage (read more about treating leg ulcers)
- people at increased risk of having a stroke, or those who’ve had a stroke, may need regular blood transfusions or treatment with hydroxycarbamide
- acute chest syndrome (a serious lung condition) usually requires emergency treatment with antibiotics, blood transfusions, oxygen and fluids given into a vein – hydroxycarbamide may be needed to prevent further episodes
- People who need a lot of blood transfusions may also need to take medication to reduce the amount of iron in their blood to safe levels. This is called chelation therapy.