A person with leukopenia has a low number of white blood cells, or leukocytes, in their blood. White blood cells help fight infection in the body. A person with a low white blood cell count is more likely to contract an infection. Leukopenia usually involves a lack of neutrophils, which are a type of white blood cell.
Medical practices can differ in how they define a low white blood cell count.
This article explores the effects of leukopenia on a person’s body, what causes leukopenia, and the treatment options available.
According to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, a healthy white blood cell count is 5,000–10,000 white cells per microliter (µL) of blood for males and children, and 3,500–11,000 white cells per µL for females.
A person has five types of white blood cells. Each type helps protect the body from a different kind of infection:
|White blood cell type||Percentage of total white blood cells in the body|
There are five kinds of leukopenia. Each one corresponds to the type of white blood cell that is affected.
When leukopenia involves low lymphocyte levels, it is called lymphocytopenia.
Leukopenia can be acute or chronic.
Healthcare professionals deem neutropenia to be chronic if a person has a low neutrophil level on at least three occasions
A person may develop chronic leukopenia due to several reasons, such as:
- Inherited conditions: Also known as congenital disorders, these
may lead toleukopenia. Examples include Kostmann syndrome and myelokathexis.
- Cancer: Leukemia cells can
force outthe cells in the bone marrow that make normal blood cells. This can lead to leukopenia.
- Blood cell and bone marrow conditions: Examples include anemia, overactive spleen, and myelodysplastic syndromes.
- Autoimmune disorders: Examples include lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.
- Infectious diseases: Examples include HIV, AIDS, and tuberculosis.
A person who
Leukopenia refers to a reduced number of total white blood cells. A person with leukopenia can have a reduction in any type of white blood cell.
Neutropenia is a type of leukopenia. A person with neutropenia has a low neutrophil count. Neutrophils are the most common type of white blood cell.
An absolute neutrophil count (ANC) is a test that can help diagnose conditions such as leukemia. It can also help healthcare professionals assess how chemotherapy is affecting a person’s neutrophil count and whether they need to pause treatment.
A person has neutropenia if their neutrophil levels drop below 1,000 neutrophils per µL of blood.
A person may not show symptoms if they have a low white blood cell count. However, repeated infections may indicate leukopenia. The symptoms of infection include:
- sore throat
- mouth ulcers that are difficult to heal
- flu-like symptoms
A person with leukopenia may have other symptoms that relate to the cause of their low white blood cell count.
Several medical conditions can cause leukopenia. Certain treatments and medications may also cause leukopenia.
Conditions that may cause leukopenia
A person may develop leukopenia due to the
- autoimmune conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and Sjögren’s disease
- cancers, such as Hodgkin lymphoma, leukemia, and myelofibrosis
- infection, such as influenza, HIV, and hepatitis
- inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
- granulomatosis with polyangiitis, which is a condition that causes the inflammation of the blood vessels
- a deficiency in folate, copper, or vitamin B12
- inherited disorders, such as Chediak-Higashi syndrome or Kostmann syndrome
COVID-19 may also result in a shortage of white blood cells.
Treatments and medications that may cause leukopenia
Certain cancer treatments
- radiation therapy
- bone marrow transplant
Some medications can also affect a person’s white blood cell count and may lead to leukopenia.
Medications that can have this effect
- heavy metals
Other medications that can lead to leukopenia include:
- interferons, which treat multiple sclerosis
- bupropion, an antidepressant and smoking cessation medication
- immunosuppressants, such as sirolimus, mycophenolate mofetil, tacrolimus, and cyclosporine
- antipsychotic medications,
If a person is unsure of the generic name of the drug they are taking, and there is a chance it will affect their immune system, it is a good idea for them to consult with a healthcare professional.
A healthcare professional will diagnose leukopenia with a blood test called a complete blood count (CBC). A healthcare professional will take a small blood sample to perform a CBC.
Blood consists of:
- red cells, or erythrocytes, which transport oxygen from the lungs and release it to the cells around the body
- white cells, or leukocytes
- platelets, which cause clotting in response to a wound in the body
A CBC also tests for hemoglobin (a protein in red cells involved in the distribution of oxygen) and hematocrit (the percentage of red cells in a person’s blood).
The United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS) states that treatment for leukopenia depends on the cause of the condition.
A person may need antibiotics to fight infection. A person may also need medication to boost their white blood cell count. It is important to never stop or change a medication without first consulting a healthcare professional.
If a person has cancer and their chemotherapy results in leukopenia, they may need to pause their treatment to allow their white blood cells to replenish.
Treatments that use growth factors, such as granulocyte colony-stimulating factor, may help leukopenia. Healthcare professionals may use these when chemotherapy is causing leukopenia or if the cause is genetic.
The following home treatments and behaviors may help a person with leukopenia improve their condition and reduce their risk of infection:
- eating a healthy diet
- getting plenty of rest
- avoiding cuts, scrapes, and damage to the skin
- practicing good hygiene to avoid germs
- maintaining good health
Some healthcare professionals may recommend following a neutropenic diet. A neutropenic diet, otherwise known as a low bacteria diet, focuses on eliminating foods that may contain microbes in an attempt to reduce infection rates in those with weakened immune systems. However, a
The authors state that the Safe Food-Handling guidelines, which are mandatory in all hospital kitchens, are enough to protect people against food-borne infections.
The outlook for people with neutropenia
As leukopenia can make someone more prone to infection, they should take steps to remain healthy. They can do this by practicing good personal hygiene, eating a nutritious diet, and maintaining good oral hygiene.
If a person suspects they may be developing an infection, they should speak with a medical professional.
A person should look for the signs of infection and avoid contact with people who are ill.
Leukopenia is when a person has a low white blood cell count. The most common type of leukopenia is neutropenia, which refers to low levels of neutrophils.
Although leukopenia has no symptoms, it makes a person more susceptible to infections. As a result, a person should contact a doctor if they develop recurrent infections.
Leukopenia can occur due to a range of medical conditions and medications. The treatment will depend on the underlying cause.