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Leukopenia: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

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What is Leukopenia?

Leukopenia is a term that describes when the body is low in circulating white blood cells, called leukocytes. White blood cells are an important part of the immune system, helping fight disease and infections. Besides white blood cells, the blood also contains plasma, red blood cells and platelets that stop wounds from bleeding by forming clots (x). There are five types of white blood cells with different functions, but they all work together in the immune system. Generally, they fall into two groups: granulocytes and agranulocytes (x, x, x).

Granulocytes

Granulocytes include neutrophils, eosinophils and basophils. Neutrophils fight bacterial and fungal infections and minor inflammations. Eosinophils combat parasitic infections and allergic reactions. Basophils release histamine to counter inflammation from allergies.

Agranulocytes

This group includes monocytes and lymphocytes. Monocytes ingest disease-causing organisms and clean up after the neutrophils have done their job. Lymphocytes are made up of three types: B cells that produce antibodies, T-cells that help fight disease and natural killer cells that destroy infected and cancerous cells and reduce fever and inflammation (x, x, x).

Other Blood Disorders

All blood cells die eventually, but the bone marrow continuously makes new ones (x). The healthy range for white blood cell count is between 4,500 and 11,000 per microliter of blood. A low count (less than 4,500) signals an abnormal reduction in white blood cells (x). Besides leukopenia, other changes in other blood cell counts are also important health markers. 

For example, leukocytosis signals a high white blood cell count, while bandemia is when the blood has a high number of immature blood cells from inflammation or an infection (x, x). On the other hand, anemia is a condition characterized by insufficient red blood cells to carry oxygen throughout the body (x). Thrombocytopenia is when there is a low platelet count and the blood cannot clot to stop wounds from bleeding (x).

Causes of Leukopenia

Leukopenia results from a factor that reduces white blood cell production or one that causes the body to overuse them. However, it may be a result of both. In some cases, leukopenia may be hereditary, although this is very rare. Most of the time it results from another factor (x).

Cancer

Patients may develop low white blood cell count as a result of some types of cancer. For example, it may be the result of leukemia, a type of cancer that develops in the bone marrow. Healthy cells turn into leukemic cells and they may grow to outnumber healthy cells (x). In addition, treatments may also reduce white blood cell count in cancer patients, such as chemotherapy, radiation therapy and bone marrow transplants (x).

Bone Marrow Damage

A patient may also suffer from a bone marrow disease that interferes with white blood cell production. The marrow may also produce too much of one type of white blood cell and not produce enough of another (x).

Immune & Autoimmune Diseases

Diseases of the immune system can also destroy white blood cells. For example, HIV/AIDS destroys T lymphocytes. Similarly, an autoimmune disease is when the body’s immune system malfunctions and mistakenly attacks healthy cells. For example, lupus causes the body to attack healthy white blood cells and damage them, possibly leading to leukopenia (x). It may also result from rheumatoid arthritis, which causes inflammation in the body as an autoimmune response (x).

Other causes may include (x):

  • Severe infections, including sepsis
  • Medications (antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, heart medications, immunosuppressants)
  • Vitamin and mineral deficiencies (Vitamin B12, copper, folate, zinc)
  • Congenital conditions
Causes of Leukopenia

Symptoms of Leukopenia

Leukopenia is a symptom itself and it does not cause any other symptoms on its own. Patients may discover it in a blood test or cancer patients may discover it after they have already contracted an infection. While leukopenia itself does not have any signs, the patient may notice signs of the infection that causes it, such as fever, chills, swelling, painful urination, diarrhea, shortness of breath or sore throat (x). The most serious risk of leukopenia is that it increases the risk for further infections, especially for cancer patients or any other patient with a compromised immune system (x).

Managing Leukopenia

Patients discover low white blood cell count in a blood test and correcting the condition means addressing the underlying cause. Most often, physicians will prescribe antibiotics for bacterial or fungal infections (x). If medication causes the white blood cell count to drop, the physician may change the patient’s medication dosage, including chemotherapy to let the patient’s white blood cell count recover. If leukopenia is a result of a genetic condition, the physician may stimulate white blood cell count using a marrow-derived growth factor that helps repair white blood cells (x).

Supplements for Leukopenia

According to studies, there are several nutrients that may be helpful for improving blood cell count and immune function. Patients may be able to include some of these nutrients in their regular treatment plans. However, it is important to note that dietary supplements are by no means a substitute for legitimate medical advice. It is always best to talk to a doctor if you are experiencing problems with your health before taking any supplements.

Vitamin B12

Because leukopenia may develop from a vitamin B12 deficiency, taking vitamin B12 supplements may help restore white blood cell count. It is naturally present in meat, fish, eggs and dairy products, but some patients may not get enough of it from food sources alone, so supplements may be a good option. The recommended dosage for vitamin B12 powder is 100 to 200 mg a day, after consulting a physician.

Echinacea

According to research, echinacea may have anti-inflammatory and immune-supporting effects. In one study, the herb helped patients undergoing chemotherapy and radiation by boosting the immune system. It also helped increase white blood cells and bone marrow production (x). In an animal study, echinacea restored the subjects’ blood cell counts faster after radiation. It also increased white blood cell mobility and activated natural killer cells (x). As a dietary supplement, the recommended dosage for echinacea extract powder is 450 mg once or twice a day.

Vitamin D

Experts describe vitamin D as a natural immune modulator (x). Medical researchers link low vitamin D levels to several different infections, cancers and autoimmune diseases (x). In one study, vitamin D activated antimicrobial compounds in neutrophils, monocytes and natural killer cells (x). Researchers also note that it may have a valuable effect on monocyte production and on bone marrow cells (x, x). Vitamin D3 supplements are available in softgel and powder form. The recommended dosage is between 10 and 46 mg. Individual needs may vary, so physicians recommend that users start with the lowest dosage. Use an accurate milligram scale because excess amounts of vitamin D may be toxic. Consult a doctor before taking this supplement.

Astragalus

Astragalus is a root extract and a component of traditional Chinese medicine with potential lipid-modifying, cholesterol-lowering and heart-protective properties (x, x, x). In a research study, astragalus helped restore white blood cell counts in 82 percent of subjects who developed leukopenia after chemotherapy (x). In addition, it may help reduce toxic effects from chemotherapy drugs and immunosuppressants (x). Another study shows that it may be able to eliminate radiation toxicity and help boost white blood cell production (x). The recommended dosage for astragalus extract powder is 1,300 mg per day with meals. Consult a doctor before taking astragalus supplements.

Ginseng Root 

From a plant, ginseng root is a traditional remedy with many health benefits, potentially supporting heart and immune system health. In various studies, ginseng helped increase white blood cell counts in cancer patients (x, x). Other studies suggested that it may help restore bone marrow after chemotherapy (x). The recommended dosage for ginseng root extract powder is between 1,000 and 2,000 mg up to twice a day. Make sure to consult a doctor before using this supplement because it may cause side effects and interact with other medications.

Ginger Root

Ginger root is a popular antioxidant and anti-inflammatory and it may be able to protect the body from signs of aging and diseases, such as cancer, dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. It may also help high blood pressure by helping blood circulate to the heart more efficiently. In studies, researchers conclude that ginger may be able to significantly raise white blood cell counts (x, x, x, x). Research also suggests that ginger may be able to stimulate lymphocytes, natural killer cell activity and potentially destroy disease-causing organisms (x). As a dietary supplement, take 1,000 mg of ginger root extract powder per day with at least 8 oz. of water to avoid heartburn. Make sure to consult a doctor before adding this supplement to a dietary regimen.

The Bottom Line 

White blood cells play an important role in helping the immune system fight disease. Physicians use the term “leukopenia” to describe a state in which a patient has a low white blood cell count. Leukopenia may be a symptom of several different health conditions, treatments or surgeries. For example, it may result from an infection and though there are no symptoms of leukopenia itself, the patient may show signs of the underlying infection. Low white blood cell count also puts patients at risk for further infections. Leukopenia may be particularly dangerous for patients with cancer, those undergoing chemotherapy or radiation therapy, those with HIV/AIDS or any other patient with a compromised immune system.

Treatment for leukopenia varies depending on the underlying cause. If white blood cell count declines from an infection, the patient may need antibiotics. If it is a result of medication or cancer therapy, the patient’s physician may alter their medication dosage or adjust their course of treatment. Patients may also try natural herbs and supplements to help restore white blood cell counts. Studies state that they may be beneficial, but they are not a cure for leukopenia or any other medical condition. Consult a doctor before taking any supplements. 

About the author

Mia Simpson


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