If you're a carrier of sickle cell it means you carry one of the faulty genes that causes sickle cell disease, but you don't have the condition yourself.

It's also known as having the sickle cell trait.

People who carry sickle cell won't develop sickle cell disease, but may be at risk of having a child with the condition and may occasionally need to take precautions to stop them becoming unwell.

You can find out if you're a carrier of sickle cell by having a simple blood test.

This page covers:

Who can be a sickle cell carrier?

Testing for sickle cell carriers

Advice about having children

Rare health risks

Carriers of other blood disorders

The NHS Sickle Cell and Thalassaemia Screening Programme also has a detailed leaflet about being a sickle cell carrier (PDF, 773kb) that you might find useful.

Who can be a sickle cell carrier?

Anyone can be a carrier of sickle cell, but it's much more common in people from certain ethnic backgrounds.

People with family members originally from the following parts of the world are most at risk:

  • Africa
  • the Caribbean
  • the Middle East
  • the eastern Mediterranean
  • Asia

In the UK, most people who carry sickle cell have an African or Caribbean family background. It's estimated that around 1 in 10 people in this group may be a carrier.

Testing for the sickle cell carriers

Screening for sickle cell disease is offered to all pregnant women in England, although most women will be at low risk and won't need to have a blood test to check if they're a carrier.

Read more about screening for sickle cell disease in pregnancy.

Anyone can ask to have a free test to find out if they're a carrier at any point. This can be useful if:

  • you want to find out if you're at risk of having a child with sickle cell disease
  • you have a family history of sickle cell disease or carrying sickle cell
  • your partner carries sickle cell

You can request the test from your GP surgery or nearest genetic counsellor who will discuss the result and implications with you if you're found to carry sickle cell.

Having children

If you carry sickle cell, you're at risk of having children with sickle cell disease, although this can only happen if your partner is also a carrier or has sickle cell disease themselves.

If you're planning to have a child and you know you're a carrier, it's a good idea for your partner to be tested.

If you and your partner both carry sickle cell, there's a:

  • 1 in 4 (25%) chance each child you have will not have sickle cell disease or be a carrier
  • 1 in 2 (50%) chance each child you have will be a carrier but won't have sickle cell disease
  • 1 in 4 (25%) chance each child you have will be born with sickle cell disease

If both of you are carriers and you're planning to have a baby, talk to your GP about getting a referral to a genetic counsellor who can explain the risks to your children and what your options are.

These include:

PGD is similar to IVF, but the resulting embryos are tested to check that they don't have sickle cell disease before they're implanted in the womb. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has more information about PGD.

Rare health risks

You're not at risk of developing sickle cell disease if you carry sickle cell.

The only time you may be at risk of health problems is in rare cases where you might not get enough oxygen, such as:

  • having surgery under general anaesthetic – make sure medical staff are aware you carry sickle cell before your operation so they can ensure you get enough oxygen
  • during extreme sports such as deep sea diving and climbing at high altitudes – if you do sports like these, ensure you're never short of oxygen
  • during regular, intensive physical activity – make sure you drink plenty of fluids during training and avoid extreme exhaustion

There's also a very small risk of developing kidney problems associated with carrying sickle cell.

Apart from these uncommon situations, you can lead a completely normal and healthy life if you're a sickle cell carrier.

Carriers of other blood disorders

People who are carriers of sickle cell are also at risk of having a child with a blood disorder if their partner is a carrier of a different type of blood disorder.

You can find more detailed information about some of the other types of carrier in the following leaflets:

Page last reviewed: 17/05/2016

Next review due: 01/05/2019