A person with leukopenia has a low number of white blood cells, or leukocytes, in their blood. Leukopenia usually involves a lack of neutrophils, which are a type of white blood cell.

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. Medical practices can differ in how they define a low white blood cell count.

There are five types of white blood cells. Neutrophils account for 55-70% of all white blood cells. A neutrophil deficiency is known as neutropenia. Many people use the term neutropenia and leukopenia interchangeably.

This article explores the effects of leukopenia on a person’s body, what causes leukopenia, and the treatment options available.

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A person has leukopenia if they have a reduced number of total white blood cells in their blood.

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.

White blood cells form in the bone marrow and are critical for the immune system. A person with too few leukocytes is more prone to infections and diseases.

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 following conditions:

  • autoimmune conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and Sjögren’s
  • 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.

For more advice on COVID-19 prevention and treatment, visit our coronavirus hub.

Treatments and medications that may cause leukopenia

Certain cancer treatments may affect a person’s white blood cell count, leading to leukopenia. Treatments that may have this effect include:

Some medications can also affect a person’s white blood cell count and may lead to leukopenia.

Medications that can have this effect include:

  • quinidine
  • cephalosporin
  • aminopyrine
  • heavy metals
  • phenothiazine
  • sulfonamides
  • penicillins

Other medications that can lead to leukopenia include:

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 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:

  • fever
  • sweating
  • chills
  • toothache
  • sore throat
  • mouth ulcers that are difficult to heal
  • tiredness
  • flu-like symptoms
  • rash

A person with leukopenia may have other symptoms that relate to the cause of their low white blood cell count.

There are five kinds of leukopenia. Each one corresponds to the type of white blood cell that is affected.

A person has five types of white blood cells. Each type helps protect the body from a different kind of infection:

White blood cell typePercentage of total white blood cells in the body
Neutrophils55–70%
Lymphocytes20–40%
Basophils0.5–1%
Monocytes2–8%
Eosinophils1–4%

A 2019 article notes that leukopenia typically occurs due to a low neutrophil count. When a person has low neutrophil levels, healthcare professionals refer to it as neutropenia.

When leukopenia involves low lymphocyte levels, it is called lymphocytopenia.

Acute leukopenia

Leukopenia can be acute or chronic.

A person may experience a short-term drop in their white blood cell count due to infection, drug interaction, or other causes.

Chronic leukopenia

Healthcare professionals deem neutropenia to be chronic if a person has a low neutrophil level on at least three occasions over 3 months.

A person may develop chronic leukopenia due to several reasons, such as:

  • Inherited conditions: Also known as congenital disorders, these may lead to leukopenia. Examples include Kostmann syndrome and myelokathexis.
  • Cancer: Leukemia cells can force out the 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 and tuberculosis.

A person who develops an infection of the spleen can also experience chronic leukopenia.

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.

The American Cancer Society notes that a person’s neutrophil count is an important indicator of their infection risk.

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 healthcare professional will diagnose leukopenia with 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 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.

Management

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

The outlook for people with neutropenia will depend on its cause.

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.