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What It Means to Have Sickle Cell Trait

Sickle cell trait (SCT) affects approximately one in 12 African-Americans in the U.S., yet many are unaware that they carry the gene that causes sickle cell disease (SCD). Living with the trait doesn’t mean that the person exhibits any characteristics of the disease. It does mean that the person carries the gene and can therefore pass on the disease to his or her baby.

Probability of Sickle Cell Disease

If only one or both parents have the sickle cell trait, then there is a 50 percent chance that the baby will receive the trait, making the baby a carrier (but not have the disease). If both parents have the trait, then there is 25 percent chance that the baby will have sickle cell disease, and a 25 percent chance that the baby will not have either the disease or the trait.

Sickle cell trait is most common in African-Americans, but is also found in those with a family history from Central and South America, the Caribbean, India, Saudi Arabia, sub-Saharan Africa and the Mediterranean – Italy, Greece and Turkey.

What It’s Like to Have Sickle Cell Disease

People with SCD have red blood cells that are harder and stickier than normal, causing the cells to buckle into a c-shape, like a sickle (farm tool). The cells also:

  • Get stuck when flowing through small blood vessels and can clog blood flow.
  • Die earlier than normal blood cells, which creates a constant deficit of red blood cells.

    Pain is the primary complication of SCD, called a pain crisis. Other complications include:

  • Anemia
  • Hand-foot syndrome (swelling)
  • Infection
  • Acute chest syndrome (similar to pneumonia)
  • Vision loss
  • Leg cramps
  • Stroke
  • Deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolism
  • Splenic sequestration (spleen)

In rare cases, some people with the trait may experience a complication. Living a healthy lifestyle and staying on top of medical care are helpful defenses against complications of the disease. Healthy living includes dinking a lot of water – 8 to 10 glasses a day – eating healthy and taking steps to prevent infections, such as washing hands, paying attention to food safety and being current on vaccinations.

Preventing Sickle Cell Disease

While you can’t prevent the trait, you can start by being aware of carrying the trait. A medical professional will take a small amount of blood from a finger prick for evaluation in a lab. If the results are positive, then it will be helpful to talk with a genetic counselor and learn as much as possible before having children. Sickle cell disease has many life-long complications that you may not want to risk passing onto the next generation. Sickle cell trait (SCT) affects approximately one in 12 African-Americans in the U.S., yet many are unaware that they carry the gene that causes sickle cell disease (SCD).

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