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Sickle Cell Trait And Athletics

Football player with sickle cellAs I discussed in a previous post about sickle cell trait, people with this common inherited condition (which affects 1 out of every 12 African Americans) rarely have any health problems from the trait. However, in some very extreme conditions, such as severe dehydration and high-intensity physical activity, people with sickle cell trait can develop serious health issues such as heat stroke or muscle breakdown (rhabdomyolysis).

So if you have a son or daughter with sickle cell trait you may wonder: "Is it safe for my child to play recreational or competitive sports?" The simple answer is yes. With more than 2 million people in the U.S. with sickle cell trait, and 100s of millions worldwide, it is likely that athletes with sickle cell trait are playing every major sport — and most of them are thriving. So what can you do to prevent these rare events in your child? Probably the best thing you can do is talk with your child’s coaching staff to ensure common-sense approaches to exercise and hydration. Find out what they are doing to prevent or identify problems such as dehydration and overheating. These approaches should apply to all the athletes, not just people with sickle cell trait. As with all athletes, your child should stay well-hydrated at all times. This is especially important in the hot and humid conditions in southeast Texas. High-caffeine energy drinks should be avoided, as they can contribute to dehydration. To prevent overheating, the intensity of activity should build up slowly. There should be a time for rest and recovery between repetitions, such as wind sprints. Coaching staff members need to learn the early signs and symptoms of heat-related illness to avoid problems with heat stroke.

Dr. Amber Yates, pediatric hematologist