Low white blood cell counts are attributed to many different diseases and conditions, including infections such as HIV, autoimmune disorders such as lupus, certain medications, such as those used in chemotherapy and some antibiotics, as well as certain diseases, such as cancer or myelodysplastic syndromes.
A normal white blood cell count ranges from 4,500 to 10,000 cells per microliter of blood. While a mild decrease typically isn’t a cause for major concern, any count below 2,500 means that your body is at an increased risk for serious infection.
Low white blood cell counts are a concern because these cells are a very important part of the body’s immune system. They are your body’s best defense against germs, disease and other foreign invaders. When your white blood cell count is low, due to infection, disease or medications, your body becomes more vulnerable to bacteria and viruses.
Along with red blood cells and platelets, white blood cells are produced in the bone marrow. An average person will produce a whopping one hundred billion white blood cells per day. Certain diseases and some medications attack and damage the bone marrow, killing white blood cells and affecting the bone marrow’s ability to produce more.
Unfortunately, even if your doctor is closely monitoring your white blood cell levels, there is not a great deal that anyone can do to “treat” low white blood cell counts. The main form of treatment is medications, sometimes called “growth factors” that encourage your bone marrow to produce more blood cells. The two most commonly prescribed “growth factors” are filgrastim and pegfilgrastim, whiched are marketed under the brand names Neupogen and Neulasta.
Other than medication, the main course of treatment is simply to monitor your blood cell counts closely and keep an eye out for signs of infection, such as fever, cold and flu-like symptoms, cramping and diarrhea.
Because there are no real symptoms until complications actually occur most people are unaware of the fact if they have low white blood cell counts. They usually will not be detected until a doctor tests your blood, whether it be a routine test or because he/she is trying to diagnose or treat a certain disease or condition. If very low levels of white blood cells continue untreated, the result will eventually be some sort of infection. Infection can occur throughout the body, so it could manifest itself in a variety of forms, such as the flu, a sinus infection or a urinary tract infection.
While these infections are not typically a cause for major concern, they could lead to more serious complications because your body has already been weakened by the disease or treatment that caused the low white blood cell counts in the first place.
This is why if you battling a virus such as HIV, an autoimmune disease such as lupus or if you are receiving chemotherapy or radiation treatments, your doctor should be involved in helping you monitor your white blood cell counts. They should be drawing your blood regularly to test your levels and should also be helping you look for signs of infection. This way if infection does occur it can be treated right away before it has time to cause too many complications. If you are a cancer patient that is undergoing chemotherapy or radiation, a severe decrease in white blood cells may be enough to make your doctor stop the treatment altogether or you may have to wait until your levels increase to begin your next round of treatment.