Learn more about sickle cell disease and how it may affect your baby

September 27, 2021

Sickle cell disease is a condition in which the red blood cells in your body are stiff and shaped like a letter C. Red blood cells need to be round and flexible so they can move easily through the body.

In the United States, about 100,000 people have sickle cell disease—most of whom are Black. September is National Sickle Cell Awareness Month. It’s the perfect time to learn more about the disease and how it can affect your pregnancy.

What are the symptoms of sickle cell disease?

Red blood cells carry oxygen to the rest of your body. But in people with sickle cell disease, the red blood cells are misshaped, blocking blood flow in the veins. This can cause anemia, pain, infections, organ damage and even stroke.

Who is at risk for sickle cell disease?

About 2,000 babies are born with sickle cell disease each year. In many cases, the condition is diagnosed at birth.

Sickle cell disease is inherited. This means it’s passed from parent to child through genes. You have to inherit a gene change for sickle cell from both parents to have the disease. If you inherit the gene change from just one parent, you have sickle cell trait. This means that you have the gene change for the sickle cell disease but you don’t have sickle cell disease. When this happens, you’re called a carrier. A carrier has the gene change but doesn’t have the condition.

People of color have a higher risk of developing the disease. In fact, about 1 in 13 Black people carry the sickle cell trait, and many don’t know that they have it. Hispanic people are the second most common ethnic group to have the disease.

Can sickle cell disease cause problems during pregnancy?

With regular prenatal care, most people who have sickle cell disease can have a healthy pregnancy. However, if you have sickle cell disease, you’re more likely than other parents to have health complications that can affect your pregnancy. These complications include pain, infection or vision problems.

During pregnancy, sickle cell disease may increase your risk of miscarriage, preterm birth or having a baby with low birthweight. In addition, the symptoms of the disease may become more severe during pregnancy. This may cause pain in the organs or joints more frequently. Episodes of pain can last a few hours to a few days, but some last for weeks.

And, having a blood disorder like sickle cell disease can make you more likely to get severely sick from COVID-19. Get the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as it’s available to you.

How can you find out if you have sickle cell disease or sickle cell trait?

Two tests can tell you if you have sickle cell disease or sickle cell trait: a blood test or a swab of cells taken from inside your mouth. Both tests are safe to have while pregnant. Your partner can be tested, too.

You and your partner may want to be tested if:

  • Sickle cell disease or the sickle cell trait runs in your families. To help you find out, take your family health history and share it with your health care provider.
  • You’re a person who is Black or Hispanic, or your family’s ancestors are from Africa, the Caribbean, Greece, India, Italy, Malta, Sardinia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and South and Central America.

Talk with your provider or genetic counselor if you’re thinking of having either of these tests.

If you have sickle cell disease and you’re pregnant or planning to get pregnant, talk with your provider about the medicines you’re taking. Your provider may change your medicine to one that’s safer for your baby.

Ask your provider any questions you may have about sickle cell disease and pregnancy.