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A silent killer in young athletes - sickle cell trait

October 19, 2011

The stories have become all too familiar to us: local news coverage shows a high school athlete who has collapsed unexpectedly during a game and is being rushed to the hospital. It is every parent’s worst nightmare.

Many athletes are unaware that they too may be at risk for life-threatening complications while playing sports. Every parent and athlete should be aware of a common inherited condition that may put them at risk: sickle cell trait.

What is the difference between sickle cell anemia and sickle cell trait?

Sickle cell anemia is a disease that is passed down within families that results in abnormally shaped red blood cells. Red blood cells work to deliver oxygen to all parts of the body. When these red blood cells are fragile and misshapen as they are in sickle cell anemia, the body cannot get adequate oxygen.

The disease occurs when a person has inherited the sickle cell trait from both parents. A child with the disease will have painful symptoms and will most likely be physically unable to participate in athletics.

However, a child who has inherited the sickle cell trait from only one parent does not have the disease and may not have any symptoms at all. They may be totally unaware that they have this trait, but they may be at greater risk of complications while playing sports.

While playing sports, the body of an athlete is in need of more oxygen to fuel their body. Sometimes during periods of intense physical strain, dehydration, heat or high altitudes the body of an athlete with sickle cell trait cannot meet the physical demands. This can result in severe injury to their internal organs and has contributed to the death of many young athletes.

How do I know if my child has sickle cell trait?

Most parents are informed of their child’s sickle cell disease or trait when the child is born. However, if you don’t know your child’s or your own status, ask your doctor to perform a blood test.

To find out more about sickle cell trait and the warning signs while playing sports, watch this video: