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Know Your Sickle Cell Trait

Do you know if you have sickle cell trait? Most people with sickle cell trait do not know, putting them at risk of having a child with sickle cell disease and – in rare cases – putting themselves at risk.

In North Carolina it is estimated over 90,000 people have sickle cell trait or a related hemoglobin trait such as hemoglobin C trait, hemoglobin E trait and beta-thalassemia trait. 

You might not be thinking about having children just yet. But you might one day, and it’s important to know if you’re a carrier of sickle cell trait and at risk of having a child with sickle cell disease.

Two genes for sickle cell hemoglobin results in sickle cell anemia, the most severe form of sickle cell disease. In other words, if both a male and female have sickle cell trait, their children could have sickle cell anemia. If you know your hemoglobin status and that of your partner, you’ll know if you’re likely to have a child with sickle cell disease. Other common forms of sickle cell disease include sickle cell hemoglobin C disease (SC), sickle cell hemoglobin E disease (SE) and sickle cell beta thalassemia disease (SB).  

Sickle cell disease is a group of conditions that affect hemoglobin, which allows red blood cells to carry oxygen to all parts of the body. Red blood cells that contain sickle hemoglobin are inflexible and can stick to blood vessel walls, causing a blockage that slows or stops blood flow.

When this happens, oxygen cannot reach tissues, leading to sudden, severe pain. The poor oxygen delivery can damage the brain, spleen, eyes, lungs, liver and multiple other organs. All tissues within the body are at risk for damage because of the obstruction of blood flow.

Common chronic complications of sickle cell disease include:

  • dactylitis, a painful swelling of hands and feet in children;
  • acute chest syndrome, a serious, often deadly complication involving the lungs;
  • chronic organ damage;
  • stroke;
  • and kidney failure.

These complications can cause early death. People with sickle cell disease have a life span that is 20-30 years shorter than persons with normal hemoglobin. In the United States, sickle cell disease is most common in the African American population and persons of Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and Indian ancestry. Sickle cell disease also affects other groups including Hispanics/Latinos and Asians.

Are you one of the 90,000 in North Carolina at risk of passing sickle cell trait on to your children? Get tested and know whether you have sickle cell trait or another hemoglobin trait. Contact your doctor or local health department to request a sickle cell test.

It’s also important to know if you have sickle cell trait for your own peace of mind. While most people with sickle cell trait do not have symptoms of the disease, there are rare cases when having the trait can be harmful such as: 

  • low oxygen levels
  • dehydration
  • high altitudes
  • intense physcial activity

Learn more about the North Carolina Sickle Cell Syndrome Program and read real stories from people living with sickle cell trait and sickle cell disease on the Centers for Disease Control’s website.