Lymphocytes are white blood cells that help to protect the body from infections. Lymphocytopenia, or lymphopenia, is a condition in which a person does not have enough lymphocytes in their blood.
By itself, lymphocytopenia does not necessarily cause symptoms. However, people who have low numbers of lymphocytes are at increased risk of infection from viruses, bacteria, fungi, and parasites.
This article outlines the definition, causes, and symptoms of lymphocytopenia.
We also discuss how doctors diagnose and treat lymphocytopenia and the outlook for people with the condition.
Lymphocytopenia refers to a lack of lymphocytes in the bloodstream. The usual range of blood lymphocyte levels differs for adults and children.
For adults, lymphocytopenia occurs when the total number of lymphocytes per microliter of blood falls
There are three main factors that can cause a drop in lymphocyte levels. These are:
- slow production of lymphocytes
- excessive destruction of lymphocytes
- capture of lymphocytes by the spleen or lymph nodes while filtering the blood
Understanding and treating lymphocytopenia depends on finding what has caused the excessive production, destruction, or capture of lymphocytes. In some cases, there may be more than one factor involved.
Most of the time, lymphocytopenia is a condition that people acquire. However, it can sometimes be present from birth.
Some factors that can lead to acquired lymphocytopenia include:
- fasting or malnutrition
- severe physical stress
- cancer treatments, such as radiation therapy, and chemotherapy
- use of steroids
- autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus
- blood disorders, such as Hodgkin’s disease and aplastic anemia
- infectious diseases, such as HIV, tuberculosis, and viral hepatitis
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- DiGeorge anomaly
- Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome
- severe combined immunodeficiency syndrome
In many cases, there are no noticeable symptoms of lymphocytopenia. Many people only discover that they have the disorder during tests for other conditions.
When symptoms do develop, they may include:
- runny nose
- skin rash
- infections that do not get better
- swelling in the spleen or lymph nodes
- swelling in the joints
Treatment for lymphocytopenia aims to bring lymphocyte levels back within the healthy range. This will involve identifying and treating the cause of low lymphocyte levels.
Treatment may involve:
- stopping certain medications
- treating underlying medical conditions
- following a healthful, balanced diet
- getting sufficient rest and sleep
Another aim of treatment is to clear up any infections that the person has developed as a result of lymphocytopenia. The specific treatment will depend on the type of illness a person develops.
Children who experience serious and persistent infections may receive injections of immune globulin (IG).
IG is a solution that healthcare workers derive from human blood plasma. IG is rich in antibodies, which help to support the immune system.
Current research is investigating whether stem cell transplants may boost lymphocyte levels in people with severe underlying medical conditions.
To diagnose lymphocytopenia, a doctor will begin by taking a full medical history. This will help them to look for potential causes of lymphocytopenia. Examples of these include cancer treatments, exposure to HIV, or a family history of blood disorders.
A doctor will then conduct a physical exam. This will involve checking for swelling in the spleen or lymph nodes, both of which can signal infection.
If the doctor suspects lymphocytopenia, they may recommend one of the following diagnostic tests that can also help to identify its cause:
- Complete blood count (CBC): A CBC can check the total number of white blood cells.
- CBC with differential: This test provides a more precise estimate of the different types of white blood cells, including lymphocytes.
- Flow cytometry: This is a more detailed blood test that measures levels of the different types of lymphocytes, including T cells, B cells, and natural killer cells.
- Bone marrow analysis: This test checks whether the bone marrow is producing a normal amount of blood cells.
Mild cases of lymphocytopenia may improve on their own. This is more likely if a person can identify and avoid the cause of the lymphocytopenia.
Severe cases of lymphocytopenia may lead to repeated infections from multiple sources. This repetition can weaken the body and may prove life threatening in some cases.
The following tips can help a person with lymphocytopenia to reduce the risk of infection:
- avoid people with contagious illnesses
- have a seasonal flu shot and pneumonia vaccine
- wash the hands regularly
- maintain good oral hygiene
- eat only cooked foods
Lymphocytopenia is a disorder that abnormally low levels of lymphocytes in the blood characterize.
Lymphocytes are immune cells that play a vital role in protecting the body from infection. People with low lymphocyte levels are, therefore, vulnerable to infections.
People can acquire or inherit lymphocytopenia. Acquired lymphocytopenia is more common, and there are many potential causes.
Mild cases of lymphocytopenia may improve on their own, or with routine treatment. Severe cases may be more challenging to treat.
A person should talk to their doctor for more information about their individual treatment plan and outlook.