How Summer Weather Affects Sickle Cell Disease
After a cold winter, most of us love it when the weather warms up. And kids with sickle cell disease? They really love it.
“Staying warm is good for overall health if you have sickle cell disease, so in the summer, these kids tend to do better,” said Dr. Nnenna Badamosi, a pediatric hematologist/oncologist and director of the sickle cell transition program at the Children’s Hospital of Georgia.
But—and it’s a big but—kids with sickle cell disease can still run into problems when they experience extremes of temperature, which, if you think about it, is actually pretty common in the summertime.
Hot and Cold
It’s just starting to get warm, so running and jumping into a chilly lake or pool sounds like a refreshing idea, doesn’t it? Not if you have sickle cell disease.
Winter temperatures can a pain crisis and even a hospital visit in kids with sickle cell disease, but so can sudden temperature changes like jumping into really cold water. Badamosi suggests that kids should visit beaches and pools when outdoor temperatures are in the mid-80s or higher. “That’s when the water is probably warm enough to play in,” she said. “What I tell patients is, if you put your foot in and you jump out right away because it’s too cold, that’s not a good sign.”
At the same time, extreme heat pushing 90 degrees and up means that kids with sickle cell disease still need to take some extra care when they head outdoors. Again, Badamosi said, kids should listen to their bodies: If they start to feel really hot, they should get into the shade or head inside. “It’s also easy to get dehydrated, which can precipitate a crisis, so always have plenty of hydration with you, like a water bottle,” she said.
“But My Friends Were There”
While it can be really tough to have to sit out when friends want to enjoy a pool afternoon, “The important thing is to listen to your body,” Badamosi said. “If you feel like it’s too cold, you shouldn’t get pressured into doing something that could make you end up in the hospital.”
When older children with sickle cell disease are in the hospital during the summertime, Badamosi always asks what the trigger was. “They know,” she said. “They say, ‘It’s because I jumped into the pool,’ and they’re trying to keep up with friends. On the one hand, we want to encourage that,”—it’s important for kids with any chronic disease to be able to enjoy normal, everyday childhood activities—“ but they have to listen to their bodies and know when to stop.”
The sickle cell transition program at AU Health actually offers a teen mentoring program where teens with sickle cell disease can meet up, be a support network for one another, and get peer support—including tips on what to tell friends when they aren’t able to go or stay in a pool or water park. “If you feel like you can’t do something, you should feel safe to tell friends that you can’t or that you need a break,” said Badamosi.
When the weather warms up, it’s also time for many kids to start playing more organized outdoor sports. But contact sports like football—which carry a higher risk for head and abdominal injuries—is where kids with sickle cell need to take care. “Everything else is fair game,” said Badamosi.
Head injuries are even more serious in kids with sickle cell disease because they tend to have narrower and thinner blood vessels, which puts them at higher risk for stroke. A hard hit to the head could cause bleeding, which could be an immediately life-threatening situation.
Kids also need to be careful about injuries to their belly because some have enlarged spleens, which could rupture if they get tackled or experience other force in their abdominal area. “As kids get older, their spleens tend to get smaller or they may have surgery to take out their spleen, which makes this less of a concern,” said Badamosi.
Listen to Your Body
So whether it’s summer or winter, Badamosi says this to patients all the time because it’s important: “You need to listen to your body.”
And in a world where kids with sickle cell disease hear the word “no” so often, she also says this—“As long as you’re hydrated and you’re up to it, you can do whatever you want.”