Infection and sickle cell disease


People with sickle cell disease have an increased risk of developing certain infections, including pneumonia, blood stream infections, meningitis, and bone infections. In people with sickle cell disease, the spleen does not work correctly. The spleen is an organ in the abdomen that helps protect against infection by filtering bacteria from the bloodstream and by producing antibodies. Early in life, sickle cells clog the blood vessels in the spleen leading to damage and poor protection against infection.

Common symptoms of an infection

  • Fever (temperature of 100.9 degrees F [38.3o C] or higher)
  • Cough, chest pain, trouble breathing
  • Swelling, tenderness, and redness in the skin or in the area over a bone or joint

Families of patients with sickle cell disease should watch for fever and treat any body temperature of 100.9 degrees F or higher as a medical emergency. Call the H clinic right away at 901-595-5041 if your child has a fever of 100.9 degrees F or higher.  .

After 5 p.m. and on weekends and holidays:

Call the St. Jude operator at 901-595-3300 and ask to speak with the hematologist on call. If there is a delay in speaking with someone from St. Jude, you should seek care at your doctor’s office or your local hospital emergency department. 

Managing infection in a person with sickle cell disease

At home, do not give fever reducers, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol®) or ibuprofen (Motrin®, Advil®), for a fever of 100.9 degrees F or higher. Although these medicines can lower the body’s temperature, they can mask the symptoms of an infection.

When a child with possible infection is brought to the St. Jude clinic or local emergency room, the staff will take a blood sample to test for infection. The blood test will help the doctor find the cause of the infection. After the blood sample is taken, your child will be given antibiotics. Antibiotics should be given after the blood sample is taken. If given first, antibiotics will make it harder for the doctor to find the cause of the infection. Other treatment may be given depending on the cause, location, and severity of the infection. 

Preventing infection

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.
  • Wash your hands when preparing food and before eating.
  • Wash your hands after using the restroom, sneezing, coughing, shaking hands, or touching things that might have germs; for example a baby’s diaper.
  • To learn more, see “Do You Know… Clean Hands.”

Up-to-date immunizations can prevent many of the more serious infections, especially pneumococcal bacteria, which causes pneumonia and other infections.

  • All childhood immunizations should be up to date.
  • Get a flu vaccine every year.
  • Pneumococcal vaccines: Prevnar® at 2, 4, 6, and 12 months and Pneumovax® at 2, 5, and 15 years old
  • Meningococcal vaccine at  24 months, 26 months, 5 years, and then every 5 years
  • Other vaccines that might be recommended by your medical team, such as hepatitis B

No one thing can prevent infection at all times. Sometimes a person with sickle cell disease will become ill even when every guideline is followed. If a person with sickle cell disease has a fever of 100.9 degrees F or higher, it is a medical emergency. Call your child’s nurse case manager or doctor right away or go to the nearest emergency room. 

Isolating illness to protect others

Many patients at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital have cancer and other serious health conditions. They receive treatments that can weaken their immune systems (the body system that fights infection). For some of these children being exposed to infection can be fatal.

If you suspect that your child has an infection, please call the clinic before coming to St. Jude. You will enter through a different door and will be placed in an isolation room to see the doctor. This is to protect the patients with weakened immune systems. 


If you have further questions about infection and sickle cell disease, talk to your child’s doctor or nurse.


This document is not intended to take the place of the care and attention of your personal physician or other professional medical services. Our aim is to promote active participation in your care and treatment by providing information and education. Questions about individual health concerns or specific treatment options should be discussed with your physician.

St. Jude complies with health care-related federal civil rights laws and does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, age, disability, or sex.

ATTENTION: If you speak another language, assistance services, free of charge, are available to you. Call 1-866-278-5833 (TTY: 1-901-595-1040).

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