Living with sickle cell disease (SCD) can be hard. Complications including pain, anemia, acute chest syndrome, and silent organ damage can anywhere in your body, at any time, and without warning.
One of the most common complications is sudden and intense pain. Pain in SCD is usually caused by the sickle-shaped red blood cells blocking blood flow through the tiny blood vessels throughout your body. The abnormal shape is due to a different form of hemoglobin (the oxygen-carrying protein) in sickled red blood cells. Usually, with normal hemoglobin, red blood cells are round, soft and flexible. Due to the presences of abnormal hemoglobin, red blood cells in SCD are stiff and shaped like a sickle (a farm tool) or a crescent moon. These red blood cells don’t flow easily through your body. They can get stuck in the blood vessels and block oxygen from getting to your tissues. That can cause pain, which is commonly felt in the back, chest, hands and feet.
Hydroxyurea is a medication your doctor might prescribe to help prevent pain and other problems. Even when there are no obvious SCD problems, hydroxyurea can help reduce the silent damage to organs caused by SCD. Hydroxyurea makes your red blood cells bigger. It helps them stay rounder and more flexible, keeping hemoglobin from changing to a sickle shape. This makes the red blood cells less likely to block the blood vessels and cause problems.
Hydroxyurea also works on new red blood cells that are made every day. So, it works best if you take it every day. Staying on track with your hydroxyurea is important.
All medications, including hydroxyurea, can have side effects. But in general, they’re not very common or serious. It can take a while to figure out the best dose for you. You’ll need to have blood tests about once a month for a while. For most people, taking hydroxyurea is safe and lessens the chances of pain, blood transfusions, acute chest syndrome and hospital visits.1 2