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What is Neutropenia?

D. Jeffress
D. Jeffress

Neutropenia refers to a deficiency in specialized white blood cells called neutrophils. These cells, which usually comprise about half of the white blood cells in the bloodstream, are essential in fighting bacterial, fungal, and viral infections. An individual with neutropenia is susceptible to frequent and severe infections. The condition is usually the result of an autoimmune disorder that affects neutrophil function or production. In order to promote a patient's health and strengthen his or her immune system, doctors usually try to identify and correct the underlying cause of neutropenia symptoms.

Blood cells are produced in bone marrow, the soft tissue found inside most large bones. Some disorders that lead to neutropenia affect the bone marrow's ability to produce neutrophils. Cancer, severe viral infections, anemia, and vitamin deficiencies can all disrupt the production of new white blood cells. The condition can also occur when existing healthy neutrophils are attacked by the immune system. A number of autoimmune disorders, chemotherapy, radiation, and adverse drug reactions can cause the body to wrongly target white blood cells.

A neutrophil.
A neutrophil.

Neutropenia is not usually detected until a person is stricken with a severe illness, or remains ill for long periods of time. A person who suffers from frequent fevers and sore throats may be showing signs of a weakened immune system. Doctors can usually test for neutropenia by taking blood samples and having them analyzed in a clinical laboratory. Specialists determine the number of neutrophils in a sample and inform doctors of any abnormal results.

A blood sample can be used to diagnose neutropenia.
A blood sample can be used to diagnose neutropenia.

Once a patient is diagnosed with neutropenia, doctors will attempt to identify the exact causes in order to provide the best treatment. In some cases, it is necessary for a physician to conduct a bone marrow biopsy to determine the cause of a low white blood cell count. Immediate treatment measures for a sick patient usually include oral or intravenous antibiotics. Some patients, especially those with severely weakened immune systems, must be hospitalized to prevent exposure to toxins and bacteria. After temporarily stabilizing the immune system, doctors will enact treatment for underlying causes.

Most autoimmune disorders can be controlled with regular doses of medications, and vitamin deficiencies are fought with nutritious diet plans and supplements. Cancerous conditions that lead to low white blood cell counts are usually the most difficult treat. Surgery is not typically an option when cancerous cells are found in blood or bone marrow, so radiation or chemotherapy must be administered. Cancer treatments, however, can further deplete neutrophils in the body. Many cancer patients are required to spend several weeks or months in the hospital so that their recovery can be carefully monitored.

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    • A neutrophil.
      By: tandel
      A neutrophil.
    • A blood sample can be used to diagnose neutropenia.
      By: Alexander Gospodinov
      A blood sample can be used to diagnose neutropenia.