Known as leukopenia, it is a condition of a person who has a low or reduced number of white blood cells. This increases your risk of infections.
White blood cells help the body fight infection. A person with leukopenia does not have enough white blood cells.
Leukopenia is a condition where a person has fewer white blood cells in their bloodstream than they should. Leukopenia is diagnosed with a blood test called a complete blood count or CBC.
A healthy white blood cell count is between 3,500 and 11,000 white blood cells per microliter. A person with leukopenia may have fewer than 3,500 white blood cells per microliter.
White blood cells are produced in the bone marrow and are essential for the immune system. Having too few of them means that the body is less able to fight infection and disease.
There are five types of white blood cells. Each helps protect the body from a different type of infection:
- Neutrophils : make up 55 to 70 percent of total white blood cells. They help fight fungal and bacterial infections.
- Lymphocytes – These are the second most common type of white blood cell. They protect the body from viral infections.
- Basophils – These are the least common types of white blood cells. They are involved in inflammatory reactions to allergens.
- Monocytes : These are the largest of the white blood cells. They play a role in fighting bacteria, fungi, and viruses. They also help repair tissue that has been damaged by inflammation.
- Eosinophils – These fight parasites and play a role in allergic reactions and conditions, such as asthma.
There are five classes of leukopenia, each corresponding to the type of white blood cell that is affected.
Leucopenia vs neutropenia
The terms leukopenia and neutropenia are often used interchangeably. However, they refer to slightly different conditions.
Leukopenia is a generic term that refers to a reduction in any of the types of white blood cells.
Neutropenia is a type of leukopenia, but it specifically refers to a decrease in neutrophils, the most common type of white blood cell.
A person’s neutrophil count is an important indicator of their risk of infection.
An absolute neutrophil count (ANC) is a test that doctors can perform to decide a person’s overall health. This test can help diagnose conditions that include leukemia. It can also help assess the body’s response to treatments, including chemotherapy.
Symptoms of low white blood cells
A person with leukopenia may be more prone to infections, which can cause symptoms such as fever, sweating, and chills.
There are no specific symptoms of having a low white blood cell count. However, when someone has leukopenia, they are more likely to get infections.
Symptoms of infection include:
- A cold
A person with leukopenia may have other symptoms that are related to the cause of their low white blood cell count.
Conditions that can cause low white blood cells
The following conditions can cause leukopenia:
- Viral infections: Acute viral infections, such as colds and the flu, can cause temporary leukopenia. In the short term, a viral infection can disrupt the production of white blood cells in a person’s bone marrow.
- Blood cell and bone marrow condition : May cause leukopenia. Examples include aplastic anemia, an overactive spleen, and myelodysplastic syndromes.
- Cancer: Leukemia and other cancers can damage the bone marrow and lead to leukopenia.
- Infectious Diseases – Examples include HIV, AIDS, and tuberculosis. According to a 2015 study, women with tuberculosis are more likely to develop leukopenia than men.
- Autoimmune disorders : Some of these kill white blood cells. Examples include lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.
- Birth disorders : Also known as congenital disorders, these can lead to leukopenia. Examples include Kostmann syndrome and myelokathexis.
- Malnutrition – Certain vitamin and mineral deficiencies can lead to leukopenia. Examples include deficiencies in vitamin B-12, folate, copper, and zinc.
- Sarcoidosis – This is an overreaction of the immune system that leads to small areas of inflammation in the body. It can also affect the bone marrow.
Treatments and medications that can cause leukopenia
Cancer treatments can affect a person’s white blood cell count, leading to leukopenia.
Examples that can have this effect include:
- Radiation therapy
- Bone marrow transplant.
Certain medications can also affect the number of white blood cells in someone’s blood and can lead to leukopenia.
Medications that can have this effect include:
- Interferons to treat multiple sclerosis.
- Lamotrigine and sodium valproate for epilepsy and as mood stabilizers.
- Bupropion: An antidepressant and smoking cessation medicine.
- Clozapine: an antipsychotic medication.
- Minocycline : a common antibiotic.
- Immunosuppressants (sirolimus, mycophenolate mofetil, tacrolimus, and cyclosporine).
If a person is unsure of the generic name of the drug they are taking, and if this will affect their immune system, it is a good idea to consult a doctor.
If a person’s body fights infection, it can affect their white blood cell count. They may have slightly fewer white blood cells circulating in their bloodstream. This condition is called pseudoleukopenia.
Pseudoleukopenia is the stage before leukopenia. If a person’s white blood cells continue to decline, they can develop leukopenia.
Treatment of low leukocytes
Treatment is usually based on the specific cause of the leukopenia.
If a drug is causing leukopenia, a doctor may recommend that a person stop taking it or try a different type. A person should never stop or change their medications without first consulting a doctor.
If a person has cancer and their chemotherapy is causing leukopenia, they may need to stop their treatment to allow their white blood cells to replenish.
Treatments that use growth factors, such as granulocyte colony-stimulating factor, can help leukopenia. These are often used when chemotherapy is causing leukopenia or if the cause is genetic.
A 2015 study found that when chemotherapy was used in conjunction with a drug called erlotinib, a tyrosine kinase inhibitor, the risk of leukopenia was much lower.
The following home treatments and behaviors can help a person with leukopenia improve their condition and reduce the risk of infection. These might be:
- Eating a healthy diet.
- Resting a lot.
- Avoiding cuts and scratches.
- Practicing good hygiene to avoid germs.
Treatment may also be necessary for any infection that results from a lowered white blood cell count. This could include antibiotics or antifungals.
Treatment for leukopenia may include breaks or medications. This can be problematic if the underlying condition is severe, such as cancer, but doctors will help a person avoid the condition.
A doctor will regularly check a person’s white blood cell count if they have a condition known to cause leukopenia.
Doing regular blood tests helps to identify leukopenia early and treat it before it causes complications.