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Sickle Cell Disease and Infections

Children and teens with sickle cell disease have an increased risk of developing infections including:

  •     Pneumonia 
  •     Bloodstream infections 
  •     Meningitis 
  •     Bone infections 

The spleen and infections 

The spleen is an organ on the left side of the body under the ribcage. It is about the size of a fist. The spleen helps the body fight infection. 

 The spleen does not work correctly in people who have sickle cell disease. 

Sickle cell disease affects the red blood cells causing them to sickle or become banana shaped. Sickled red blood cells stick together and clog the blood vessels in the spleen. This leads to damage and poor protection against infection.

Common symptoms of an infection 

Mother taking temperature of daughter lying in bed with thermometer.

In people with sickle cell disease, a temperature of 101°F or higher is a fever. Call your child’s care team.

If your child has sickle cell disease, it is important for you to know the signs and symptoms of an infection. They include: 

  •    Fever 
    • Oral (by mouth) temperature of 101°F (38.3°C) or higher
    • Axillary (under the arm) temperature of 100°F (37.8°C) or higher  
  •     Chills and sweats 
  •     Cough, chest pain, or trouble breathing 
  •     Swelling, tenderness, and redness in the skin or in the area over a bone or joint 
  •     Sleeping more than usual or unable to keep awake 

In people with sickle cell disease, a temperature of 101°F or higher taken by mouth (orally) is considered a fever.

Call your child’s care team immediately if your child begins running a fever like this. 

Managing infections with sickle cell disease 

Do not give fever reducers like acetaminophen or ibuprofen for a fever. These medicines can lower the body’s temperature. But they also can hide infection symptoms. 

Instead, take your child to a clinic or local emergency room for a blood test. Your child’s care team can use the test to find the cause of the infection. 

Your child’s care team will likely prescribe antibiotics to treat the infection. Be sure your child takes them exactly as prescribed. 

Preventing infection 

You can take steps at home to help your child stay healthy. One of the best ways to prevent infection is keeping your hands clean.  

Female child washes hands in sink.

One of the best ways to prevent infection is keeping your hands clean. 

  • Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. 
  • Wash your hands when preparing food and before eating. 
  • Wash your hands after using the restroom, sneezing, coughing, or shaking hands. 
  • Cough or sneeze into the bend of your arm and wash your hands after. 

Vaccines can prevent many serious infections. Ensure your child gets all their vaccines on time. 

  •    Be sure your child gets a flu vaccine every year. 
  •    Be sure your child gets other vaccines if the care team recommends them, such as hepatitis B. 

It is not always possible to prevent infections. Sometimes sickle cell patients can follow all these guidelines and still get an infection. 

Reach out to your child’s care team if you have questions about infections. They are available to help you.

Key points about sickle cell disease and infections

  •     Children and teens with sickle cell disease are more likely to develop infections. 
  •     Fever is a medical emergency for people with sickle cell disease. 
  •     Take steps to help your child avoid infections. 
  •     Seek medical care if you think your child is developing an infection. 

Reviewed: September 2022