Produced in the bone marrow, white blood cells (also called leukocytes) work in the immune system to protect the body against disease by detecting and fighting foreign molecules and other substances that often lead to infection. There are 5 different types of white blood cells including Basophils, Eosinophils, Lymphocytes, Monocytes, and Neutrophils. Each of these white blood cell types are responsible for responding to different pathogens in the immune process. The normal total white cell count ranges from 4,500-10,000 white cells per microliter. Low white blood count (leukopenia) can have different symptoms, but there are also many treatments for this condition.
What is Leukopenia?
Leukopenia is defined as a low white blood cell count that falls below 4,000 cells per microliter. The most common causes of leukopenia include:
- Viral infections that decrease the ability of the bone marrow to produce white blood cells
- Inherited disorders such as myelokathexis or Kostmann's syndrome that prevent the white cells from entering the bloodstream
- Cancer of the bone that damages the bone marrow
- Chemotherapy and other drugs (such as antibiotics and diuretics) that disrupt the bone marrow or that destroy the white blood cells after they are formed
- Autoimmune disorders such as lupus
- Other disorders such as hypersplenism that can destroy blood cells as they are produced
- Massive infections that overwhelm the production of white blood cells so they cannot be produced fast enough by the body
Symptoms and Complications of Leukopenia
Symptoms of leukopenia vary from person to person and depend on the cause and severity of the problem. Lack of energy, headache, fever, and irritability are common symptoms. You may also notice that you may have more infections and sores in your mouth. Sometimes, a person with leukopenia may develop a desire for warm liquids. Complications of leukopenia may include:
- Anemia. Anemia will result in decreased red blood cell and hemoglobin levels.
- Abnormal Period. Women may have exceptionally heavy bleeding or abnormal bleeding.
- Neurasthenia. Neurasthenia results in chronic fatigue, headache, and irritability.
- Thrombocytopenia. As leukopenia progresses, platelets in your blood may decrease resulting in a condition called thrombocytopenia.
- Stomatitis. Stomatitis is characterized by infections in the mouth causing sores on the gums, lips, and tongue.
- Pneumonia. Pneumonia, or infection of the lungs, may result from decreased white blood cells that would normally fight this type of infection.
- Liver abscesses. Although rare, one of the most deadly results of leukopenia is the possible development of a liver abscess from an infection in the liver.
Treatments for Leukopenia
Because there are so many causes of leukopenia, the treatments for this disorder are varied. All of these treatments must be supervised by your healthcare provider.
- Try Prescribed Steroids. One of the effects of steroids is to increase production of white blood cells in the bone marrow.
- Consider Chinese Medication. Traditional Chinese medications and treatments may help to increase white blood cell production. Be sure to work with both your traditional medicine and Chinese providers to ensure that the treatments being provided are complementary.
- Remove Causative Agents. When possible, stop the medication or activity that is causing the leukopenia. Although not always possible, this can be a simple way to stop the problem.
- Increase Essential Vitamin Intake. Be sure to get plenty of vitamins and minerals. Be sure to get plenty of Vitamin B12 and folate. These vitamins cannot be produced or stored by the body so you must eat the proper foods or take supplements to get them. Vitamin B12 is found in fish, liver, milk and dairy products, eggs, kelp, yeast and tofu. Look for breads with added Vitamin B12. Folate is readily available in beans, grains, green vegetables, liver, pork, poultry, and citrus fruits.
- Promote White Blood Cells Growth. Research published in 2006 in the Annals of Oncology reports that using medication to promote white blood cell growth is one of the most important parts of treatment. The drugs Neupogen and Neulasta are the two most commonly prescribed medications for this purpose. Side effects that should be reported when using these drugs include shortness of breath, evidence of infection, and abdominal pain.
- Use Antibiotics to Prevent Infections. Your healthcare provider will probably prescribe antibiotics to prevent or treat infections while your white blood cell count is low. Be sure to let your provider know if you have any signs of infection while you are leukopenic.
The most critical point to know about leukopenia is that you MUST work with your healthcare provider to find the cause of the disorder. Only your provider will be able to diagnose the cause of leukopenia and prescribe the correct treatments. In addition, you must be sure to let any doctor, dentist or other healthcare provider know about your leukopenia BEFORE they provide any care or medications to you. With the proper care and treatment, most causes of leukopenia can be reversed.