Low Oxygen Levels Contribute to Symptoms

Sickle cell disease is usually diagnosed at birth with standard newborn screening. Newborns have high levels of protective fetal hemoglobin, so babies that have sickle cell disease usually do not have any symptoms until four to six months of age.

Sickle cell disease symptoms range from mild to severe, and environment and conditions influence your symptoms. Sickle cell disease can worsen in extreme conditions, such as:

  • High altitude
  • Dehydration
  • Illness
  • Stress
  • Sleep apnea
  • Menstruation
  • Exposure to cold temperatures
  • Intense exercise


Most patients with sickle cell disease have ongoing anemia. Sickled cells do not live as long as healthy red blood cells, and people with sickle cell disease have lower red blood cell counts than those without sickle cell disease.

Sickle cells die earlier than normal red blood cells, so there are not enough healthy cells to take oxygen to the tissues. Patients with sickle cell disease may feel tired more frequently or have difficulty exercising for an extended period.


Dactylitis, painful swelling in your hands or feet, is often the first symptom babies and young children with sickle cell disease exhibit. Your child may have sickle cell disease if you notice:

  • increased fussiness
  • swelling, tenderness, or redness in their hands or feet
  • avoiding grabbing or holding items
  • avoiding walking or standing


A vaso-occlusive crisis is a name for pain caused when there’s low oxygen flow to your body’s tissues. This type of musculoskeletal pain is the most common sickle cell disease-related complaint among older children and adults. When you experience a vaso-occlusive crisis, sickled cells block your blood vessels, decreasing oxygen flow to surrounding tissues.