We describe a steady-state patient with sickle cell anemia (SS disease) who developed sporadic hemoglobinuria, historically related to vigorous exercise. We studied him and four other patients with SS disease and demonstrated exercise-induced hemoglobinemia. To see if SS erythrocytes were abnormally fragile when exposed to shear forces that could be generated in small vessels of exercising muscles, we exposed them to physiologic shear rates in a cone-plate viscometer. We show that SS erythrocytes are more shear sensitive than normal erythrocytes. This phenomenon is directly related to the presence of dehydrated cells as demonstrated by the increasing shear sensitivity of increasingly dehydrated cells separated on Stractan density gradients. Normal shear sensitivity could be restored to dehydrated layers by restoring normal hydration. Restoration of shear stability was complete in all layers except for the most dense ISC layer. A control group of patients with SC disease exhibited no exercise-induced hemoglobinemia, no abnormal shear sensitivity of whole blood, and only rare dehydrated ISCs. These studies suggest that the exercise-induced hemolysis in SS patients is related to the lysis of dehydrated, shear-sensitive cells. This same process may also contribute to the chronic hemolysis of SS disease--a phenomenon known to correlate with the numbers of dehydrated ISCs.