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My Friend Has Sickle Cell Disease. How Can I Help?

What Is Sickle Cell Disease?

Sickle cell disease is a problem with the body's red blood cells. They're shaped like a crescent instead of a round disc. These crescent shaped cells resemble an old farm tool called a sickle.

What Happens When Someone Has Sickle Cell Disease?

Sickle-shaped red blood cells are sticky and stiff. They get stuck together easily, and block small blood vessels. When blood can't get to where it should, it can cause pain and problems with parts of the body.

When pain happens, it's called a pain crisis. The pain can be anywhere in the body, such as the arms, legs, joints, back, or chest. It can come on suddenly, and be mild or severe. The pain can last for a few hours, a few days, or sometimes longer.

People with sickle cell disease have a low number of red blood cells, called anemia. This can make them feel tired, dizzy, or out of breath. They also may have some yellowing of the skin and eyes, called . And they can have problems with other parts of the body, like the lungs or kidneys.

Sickle cell disease is inherited. People are born with it. It's not contagious, so you can't catch it from someone. Sickle cell disease is a lifelong health condition. Right now, there's no cure, but there are things doctors can do to help.

What's My Friend Going Through?

Because of sickle cell disease, your friend may be tired a lot or have trouble fighting infections. Teens with sickle cell disease often need to:

  • take medicine to help them stay healthy
  • drink plenty of water
  • get enough rest
  • limit some activities
  • avoid extreme temperatures, like severe cold, which can bring on a pain crisis
  • go to the doctor a lot

During a pain crisis, your friend might:

  • miss many school days in a row
  • recover at home, with rest, fluid, medicine, and other things
  • need to go to the hospital for treatment

Some people have pain crises a lot, while others get them less often.

What Can Friends Do?

Being there for a friend is always a good thing. But it's even more important when someone is dealing with an illness like sickle cell. Missing a lot of school can mean falling behind on schoolwork and having to skip social activities, which can make a person feel isolated and alone.

Be around. If your friend is missing school, ask if you can visit. Hang out, listen to music, talk about what's going on at school, or do homework together. If you can't be there in person, find another way to talk.

Encourage healthy habits. Everyone should eat well and stay hydrated, but it's especially important for someone with sickle cell disease. Help your friend avoid alcohol and smoking, both of which can make things worse. And if you don't drink or smoke, your friend won't feel "different" or worry about fitting in. Join your friend in making healthy choices for lunch and snacks.

Know the warning signs. If you notice certain things happening to your friend, get in touch with an adult (such as a school nurse, coach, or your friend's parent) right away. Your friend could need medical help if he or she has:

  • a fever
  • chest pain
  • shortness of breath (trouble breathing)
  • belly pain
  • an unusual headache
  • any sudden weakness or loss of feeling
  • slurred speech
  • sudden changes in vision

If your friend is having trouble, don't panic. Stay calm and get help from an adult. While it's good to be aware of problems, don't let watching for danger signs get in the way of having fun together. Most problems won't be serious.

There's a lot more to your friend than having sickle cell disease, so don't let the disease take center stage. Treat your friend as you would any good friend, and focus on having fun together.

Reviewed by: Larissa Hirsch, MD
Date reviewed: October 2018