Asthma and Sickle Cell Disease

Adults and children with sickle cell disease (SCD) often have asthma too. In fact, people with SCD have asthma at much higher rates than the general public.1,2

Asthma can get worse when a person with sickle cell disease catches a virus like the cold or flu. In turn, an asthma attack can trigger common SCD complications, such as pain crises, stroke, and acute chest syndrome, and make them worse.1,2

What is asthma?

Asthma is a common, long-term disorder of the airways. A person with asthma has inflamed, swollen airways.

This inflammation makes the airways sensitive to many things that are inhaled. When something you breathe in causes a reaction it is called a trigger. Common triggers include dust, chemicals, mold, smells, pet dander, and weather. The airways narrow when they are triggered, making it hard to breathe.1

Common asthma symptoms include:1

  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breast
  • Chest tightness
  • Coughing

People with asthma may have some or all of these symptoms. Often, symptoms are worse at night or early in the morning.1

Understanding the asthma-sickle cell disease connection

Many studies show that asthma and SCD cause overlapping changes in the body. For example, both cause inflammation. This means that the inflammation caused by sickle cell disease may make a person more likely to also have asthma.1,

Leukotrienes (lew-ko-try-enes) are another possible connection. Leukotrienes are chemicals the body releases after it comes in contact with an allergy trigger. These cause the airways to tighten and make more mucus and fluid. Leukotrienes may also play a role in pain crises and acute chest syndrome in people with SCD. However, more research needs to be done to better understand this.1,2

More research is also needed to come up with safe and effective treatment options for people who have both conditions. Meanwhile, clinical trials are needed to see if the current asthma treatments in people with sickle cell disease are effective.1,2

How is it treated?

Most people with SCD can control their asthma by taking medicine and avoiding triggers. In fact, with the right treatment and avoiding triggers, many people have few symptoms.

One or more drugs may be needed to treat asthma. Inhaled steroids are usually taken each day to reduce inflammation. Long-acting beta-agonists (LABAs) are taken daily to help open the airways. Short-acting beta-agonists (SABAs) are taken as needed for quick relief. Many other drugs are available to manage asthma day to day.1

Oral steroids (taken by mouth) may be given during a severe asthma attack. However, this can be risky for someone with sickle cell disease. This is because lowering the dose of steroids later may trigger a pain crisis in a person with SCD.4

Doctors have found that when asthma is treated early, there are fewer lung complications linked to sickle cell disease. However, the doctor who treats your asthma should work with your SCD doctor before prescribing anything. The goal will be to treat both conditions the best way possible while avoiding unnecessary complications.1,3

Steps you can take

Studies have found that people with SCD who also have asthma are hospitalized more often and have higher rates of death related to their SCD. That is why it is important to stay on top of both conditions if you have asthma and SCD. If asthma is spotted and treated early, then lung damage and hospitalizations may be prevented.1,2

Visit our sister site to learn more about asthma and its treatments.

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