White blood cells are vital components of the blood. Their role is to fight infection, and they are essential for health and well-being.
A high white blood cell count may indicate that the immune system is working to destroy an infection.
A low white blood cell count can signal that an injury or condition is destroying cells faster than they are being made, or that the body is producing too few of them.
White blood cells make up around 1 percent of all blood cells, and they are essential to regular function in the immune system. White blood cells are also known as leukocytes.
The bone marrow continuously produces white blood cells. They are stored within the blood and lymphatic systems until they are necessary for fighting an infection or disease in the body.
Several types of white blood cell serve different functions.
Most people will produce around 100 billion white blood cells every day.
There are several different types of white blood cells, each with varying responsibilities:
- Lymphocytes: These are vital for producing antibodies that help the body to defend itself against bacteria, viruses, and other threats.
- Neutrophils: These are powerful white blood cells that destroy bacteria and fungi.
- Basophils: These alert the body to infections by secreting chemicals into the bloodstream, mostly to combat allergies.
- Eosinophils: These are responsible for destroying parasites and cancer cells, and they are part of an allergic response
- Monocytes: These are responsible for attacking and breaking down germs or bacteria that enter the body.
When necessary, monocytes travel to other organs, such as the spleen, liver, lungs, and bone marrow, where they transform into a cell called a macrophage.
A macrophage is responsible for many functions, including removing dead or damaged tissue, destroying cancer cells, and regulating the immune response.
An increase in white blood cells is known as leukocytosis. It typically occurs in response to the following conditions:
- medications, including corticosteroids
- a bone marrow or immune disorder
- certain cancers, such as acute or chronic lymphocytic leukemia
- emotional stress
- allergic reactions
- excessive exercise
In some cases, all white blood cells are affected. However, some people have a specific disease in which only one type of white blood cell is affected.
If levels of one particular type of white blood cell increase, this may be due to a specific trigger.
- Monocytes: High levels of monocytes may indicate the presence of chronic infection, an autoimmune or blood disorder, cancer, or other medical conditions.
- Lymphocytes: If there is an elevation in the level of lymphocytes, the condition is known as lymphocytic leukocytosis. This may occur as a result of a virus or an infection, such as tuberculosis. It may also be linked to specific lymphomas and leukemias.
- Neutrophils: Increased levels of neutrophils in their body lead to a physical state known as neutrophilic leukocytosis. This condition is a normal immune response to an event, such as infection, injury, inflammation, some medications, and certain types of leukemia.
- Basophils: Rising levels of basophils may occur in people with a history of underactive thyroid disease, known as hypothyroidism, or as a result of certain other medical conditions.
- Eosinophils: If a person registers high levels of eosinophils, the body might be reacting to a parasitic infection, allergen, or asthma.
There is, on occasion, no identifiable cause for the increase in white blood cells. This is known as idiopathic hypereosinophilic syndrome. It can lead to serious complications, such as damage to the heart, lung, liver, skin, and nervous system.
Those affected by idiopathic hypereosinophilic syndrome may experience symptoms such as:
If levels of white blood cells are lower than usual, this may be a sign that the person has reduced immune activity.
This can occur as a result of conditions similar to HIV or immunosuppressant medications.
A deficiency of white blood cells is why people with diseases or medications that suppress the immune system face an increased risk of infection.
Abnormal blood cell production is also a feature of some cancers, such as leukemia and lymphoma.
A number of conditions, collectively known as myeloproliferative disorders, can occur in the bone marrow.
These develop when too many immature blood cells are produced, leading to an imbalance. Myeloproliferative disorders are rare conditions that may or may not become malignant.