Low White Blood Cell Count (2022)

Some medical conditions, like bone marrow disease, can cause low white blood cells. These cells are a vital part of the immune system, and having low white blood cells can cause medical problems, especially infections.Low white blood cells can also lead to problems with healing from wounds and make you more susceptible to cancer and other diseases.

This article will discuss the symptoms experienced with a low white blood cell count, what causes the symptoms, risk factors, treatment, and when to contact your healthcare provider.

Low White Blood Cell Count (1)

Symptoms of Low White Blood Cells

You wouldn’t expect to have direct symptoms of low white blood cells. But when these cells are low, it causes the immune system to be weak. With a weak immune system, medical problems can arise and these problems will often cause symptoms.

Infections are the most common effect of a low number of white blood cells. The infections can be more frequent and more severe than what you would experience if you had a healthy immune system.Lacking white blood cells can also make it difficult for you to heal from injuries or recover from illnesses.

Symptoms that you may experience from complications (such as infection) of having a low white count include:

  • Fatigue
  • Fevers, chills
  • Sore throat, coughing, difficulty breathing
  • Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
  • Painful urination, blood in the urine, urinary frequency
  • Skin sores that don’t heal
  • Mouth sores, mouth pain

The symptoms that accompany a low white blood cell count can vary and depend on what's causing the low count. For example, a bladder infection can cause urinary symptoms, and a stomach infection can cause nausea and vomiting.

Sometimes a lack of white blood cells leads to opportunistic infections, which are infections that wouldn’t normally develop in a person with a healthy immune system.

Cancer is another potentially serious effect of low white blood cells. These immune cells normally recognize and destroy abnormal cancer cells, and a white blood cell deficiency can allow cancer cells to multiply and spread in the body.

Types and Function of White Blood Cells (WBCs)

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Causes of a Low White Blood Cell Count

Common causes of a low white blood cell count are:

  • Medications and cancer treatments, such as some antibiotics, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy
  • Bone marrow cancers and bone marrow disorders, including aplastic anemia and multiple myeloma
  • Infectious diseases, including human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and severe infections

White blood cells are made in the bone marrow and circulate throughout the body. Diseases, toxins, medications, or medical treatments that harm the bone marrow can prevent enough white blood cells from being produced. Some medical conditions can also cause the destruction of white blood cells.

Usually, having low white blood cells is a sign of chronic disease. But sometimes medications or infections can temporarily cause this problem due to the destruction of white blood cells. This should resolve once the infection clears up or the medication is discontinued.

Benign ethnic neutropenia is a cause of inherited chronic neutropenia (a low number of leukocytes, which are usually the most numerous white blood cells). It is seen mostly in people of African, Middle Eastern, and West Indian descent worldwide. It does not increase a person's risk of infection.

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What Medications Cause Low White Blood Cells?

Some medications can cause low white blood cells as a side effect.

Chemotherapy treatments are the medications most commonly associated with low white blood cells. These medications target rapidly dividing cancer cells, as well as rapidly dividing healthy cells. Radiation therapy, also used as a cancer treatment, can have the same effect.

Because white blood cells rapidly divide as the body frequently replaces them, chemotherapy treatments can prevent their healthy production.

Other medications known to cause low white blood cells include antibiotics, antihypertensives, antipsychotics, immunosuppressants, and anti-epilepsy drugs. These medications do not cause a low white blood cell count in everyone, and there may be a genetic predisposition to this side effect.

How to Treat Low White Blood Cell Symptoms

The symptoms that may develop as a result of having low white blood cells often require treatment in addition to the treatment that’s needed for managing the underlying issues.

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Treatments can include:

  • Covering wounds to prevent an infection
  • Tylenol (acetaminophen) or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs), such as Advil (ibuprofen) and Aleve (naproxen sodium) for treatment of pain or fevers
  • Fluid intake to prevent dehydration from vomiting or diarrhea
  • Dietary supplements to prevent or treat malnutrition
  • Antibiotics or antivirals to treat infections

Additionally, sometimes a low white blood cell count can be treated, depending on the cause. Examples of treatments may include antiretroviral therapy for treating HIV or a bone marrow transplant for cancer.

Neulasta (pegfilgrastim), a granulocyte colony-stimulating factor (G-CSF), is a medication that can be used in certain circumstances to prevent low white blood cells occurring as a side effect of chemotherapy.

These treatments require ongoing and close medical care.

Are There Tests to Diagnose the Cause of Low White Blood Cells?

Diagnostic tests can identify the white blood cell count, as well as the cause of low white blood cells. A complete blood count (CBC) is a blood test that measures the number of white blood cells, as well as the number and proportion of each type of white blood cell.

The cause of a low white blood cell count can be identified with diagnostic tests as well. The specific testing selected is directed by the signs, symptoms, and risk factors. For example, an HIV test can identify HIV as the cause, while a bone marrow biopsy can often identify blood cancer.

Known Causes

Sometimes diagnostic tests are not needed to identify the cause of low white blood cells when there is a known cause, such as chemotherapy or radiation therapy. Your white blood cell count may be monitored to identify whether it is too low or is recovering after treatment.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

If you have been diagnosed with low white blood cells, it’s helpful for you to know the signs of complications and to get medical attention if you start to develop problems. You won’t be able to feel any direct effects of a low white blood cell count, so you may need periodic testing to monitor your count.

Call your healthcare provider or make an appointment if you get a fever or chills, feel run down, develop sores or a wound that won’t heal, or vomit, have diarrhea, or lose your appetite.

Get prompt medical attention for any of the following:

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  • Severe vomiting or diarrhea
  • Signs of dehydration—sunken eyes, dry skin, decreased urination
  • Confusion, lethargy
  • Severe pain or swelling
  • Painful, red, or pus-filled wound
  • Shortness of breath

Have an Action Plan

When you have a chronic condition that’s associated with low white blood cells, it’s important for you to have a plan of action in case you begin to develop urgent or nonurgent complications.

Summary

A low white blood cell count is a consequence of serious diseases, and it can lead to harmful health problems—including infections, slow healing, and cancer. A low white blood cell count doesn’t cause symptoms, but the complications of a low white blood cell count can cause many different symptoms. These symptoms often need to be treated, and management of low white blood cells is important to prevent serious complications.

A Word From Verywell

If you have a medical condition that causes low white blood cells, it’s important that you maintain consistent medical care. This can include getting regular blood tests to monitor your white blood cell count and surveillance for complications.

You may need symptomatic treatment, as well as treatment of the underlying cause. Some medical conditions that cause low white blood cells are serious chronic illnesses, like HIV or blood cancers.

Coping with these health problems can be overwhelming. Make sure you find ways to reach out for support from your family, friends, healthcare team, or support groups so you won’t have to carry the stress all by yourself.

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Frequently Asked Questions

  • Are there medications that increase white blood cells?

    (Video) Neutropenia - Mayo Clinic

    Yes, some medications, called granulocyte colony-stimulating factors (G-CSFs), can increase white blood cells. These are used in specific circumstances, such as to boost white blood cell counts that are reduced by chemotherapy used for treatment of certain types of cancer.

    Learn More:Bone Marrow Stmulating Factors

  • Can you feel symptoms of low white blood cells?

    Having a low white blood cell count doesn’t cause detectable symptoms, but the effects of white blood cell deficiency—infections, impaired wound healing, disease, and cancer—can cause a variety of noticeable and distressing symptoms.

FAQs

Is low white blood count serious? ›

Summary. A low white blood cell count is a consequence of serious diseases, and it can lead to harmful health problems—including infections, slow healing, and cancer. A low white blood cell count doesn't cause symptoms, but the complications of a low white blood cell count can cause many different symptoms.

What is the most common reason for low white blood cell count? ›

A low white blood cell count usually is caused by: Viral infections that temporarily disrupt the work of bone marrow. Certain disorders present at birth (congenital) that involve diminished bone marrow function. Cancer or other diseases that damage bone marrow.

What does it mean if your white blood count is low? ›

A low white blood cell count usually means your body is not making enough white blood cells. It can increase your risk of getting infections.

How do you fix low white blood cell count? ›

Doctors treat a low white blood cell count using: Antibiotics to treat any infections. Medicines to push your body to make more white blood cells. Treatment for any diseases that may be causing the count to be low.

What cancers cause low WBC? ›

Low white blood cell count.

Cancers that affect the blood and bone marrow can also lower the count. These types of cancers include leukemia, lymphoma, and multiple myeloma.

Do low white blood cells make you tired? ›

Can low white blood cells cause fatigue? Low white bloods cells likely aren't the cause of fatigue. If you have low WBC and are increasingly feeling fatigued, both are likely symptoms of an underlying issue.

How can I raise my white blood cell count? ›

Our bodies use materials from the protein we eat to make new WBCs. Some sources of quality protein are fish, eggs, poultry, beef, milk, Greek yogurt and beans. If your diet is poor, or you're having trouble eating, you can take a multivitamin or supplement with vitamin B12 and folate.

How can I raise my white blood cells fast? ›

Zinc is one of the best foods to increase white blood cells you can consume as it can help the body produce more WBCs and makes existing WBCs more aggressive. Foods rich in zinc include turkey meat, beef, crab, and oysters. Plus, you can also find zinc from fortified cereals and beans.

When should I be concerned about low white blood cell count? ›

How many white blood cells (WBCs) someone has varies, but the normal range is usually between 4,000 and 11,000 per microliter of blood. A blood test that shows a WBC count of less than 4,000 per microliter (some labs say less than 4,500) could mean your body may not be able to fight infection the way it should.

What disease causes low white blood cells? ›

Medical conditions include: Bone marrow disorders: Multiple myeloma and aplastic anemia are examples of bone marrow disorders that cause leukopenia. Autoimmune diseases: Autoimmune diseases happen when your immune system attacks your body. Lupus and rheumatoid arthritis are examples of autoimmune diseases.

Can anxiety cause low white cell count? ›

Calabrese says. In addition, stress decreases the body's lymphocytes — the white blood cells that help fight off infection. The lower your lymphocyte level, the more at risk you are for viruses, including the common cold and cold sores.

What foods to avoid if you have low white blood cells? ›

Avoid raw milk, any yogurt or cheeses made with raw milk, and unpasteurized juice. Be sure to wash all fresh fruits and vegetables well. You may want to switch from fresh fruits and vegetables to cooked, canned, or frozen fruits and vegetables during treatment. Make sure that canned foods are safe.

What WBC count indicates leukemia? ›

At the time of diagnosis, patients can have very, very high white blood cell counts. Typically a healthy person has a white blood cell count of about 4,000-11,000. Patients with acute or even chronic leukemia may come in with a white blood cell count up into the 100,000-400,000 range.

What is a cancerous condition involving white blood cells? ›

Leukemia is cancer of white blood cells or cells that become white blood cells. Leukemia prevents white blood cells from fighting infections in your body. Leukemia can be either acute (fast-growing) or chronic (slower-growing), and affect the lymphocytes (lymphocytic leukemia) or other immune cells (myeloid leukemia).

What are signs of leukemia in blood work? ›

Your doctor will conduct a complete blood count (CBC) to determine if you have leukemia. This test may reveal if you have leukemic cells. Abnormal levels of white blood cells and abnormally low red blood cell or platelet counts can also indicate leukemia.

Does low WBC mean leukemia? ›

Leukemia can also present with very low white blood cell counts, because the immature cells get trapped in the bone marrow and are not detected in blood tests. A decreasing number of blasts in the blood indicates that you're responding to treatment.

Can vitamin D deficiency cause low white blood count? ›

To date, there appear to be no studies that confirm vitamin D is a cause of low WBC count.

How long does it take for white blood cells to increase? ›

In a person with normally functioning bone marrow, the numbers of white blood cells can double within hours if needed. An increase in the number of circulating leukocytes is rarely due to an increase in all five types of leukocytes. When this occurs, it is most often due to dehydration and hemoconcentration.

Which fruit make white blood cells? ›

Citrus fruits

Vitamin C is thought to increase the production of white blood cells, which are key to fighting infections. Almost all citrus fruits are high in vitamin C. With such a variety to choose from, it's easy to add a squeeze of this vitamin to any meal.

Does exercise increase white blood cells? ›

Exercise causes change in antibodies and white blood cells (WBC). WBCs are the body's immune system cells that fight disease. These antibodies or WBCs circulate more rapidly, so they could detect illnesses earlier than they might have before. However, no one knows whether these changes help prevent infections.

Does vitamin b12 increase white blood cells? ›

Vitamin B12 supplementation did not affect the number and percentage of white blood cells populations in blood of rats fed a control diet for 30 days. However, 30-day addition of vitamin B12 to a low-protein diet almost completely reduced the negative impact of protein malnutrition.

What drug is used to increase white blood cells? ›

Descriptions. Filgrastim injection is used to treat neutropenia (low white blood cells) that is caused by cancer medicines. It is a synthetic (man-made) form of a substance that is naturally produced in your body called a colony stimulating factor. Filgrastim helps the bone marrow to make new white blood cells.

Can Covid affect white blood cell count? ›

One symptom of this disease is a reduction in the number of cells called lymphocytes in your blood. Lymphocytes are a type of white blood cell that fights infections.

Can you be healthy and have low white blood cells? ›

Some people who are otherwise healthy have white cell counts that are lower than what's usually considered normal, but which are normal for them.

Can Covid cause WBC to be low? ›

You can have a low WBC count due to a condition or infection or medications you are taking. Recent research has shown that people with a low WBC count are more likely to have a severe case of COVID-19. You should practice prevention strategies against COVID-19 vigilantly if you have a low WBC count.

What treats low white blood cells? ›

Treatment may include one or a combination of the following:
  • Myeloid growth factors: These are proteins that stimulate the bone marrow to produce more white blood cells to help the body fight infections. ...
  • Antibiotics may be given in certain instances to help prevent infection.

Are bananas good for low white blood cells? ›

Vitamin C stimulates the production of these critical white blood cells. In its role as an antioxidant, vitamin C also protects white blood cells from the chemicals they release to kill pathogens. One medium banana supplies 11 percent of the recommended intake of vitamin C.

When should I be worried about low white blood cells? ›

How many white blood cells (WBCs) someone has varies, but the normal range is usually between 4,000 and 11,000 per microliter of blood. A blood test that shows a WBC count of less than 4,000 per microliter (some labs say less than 4,500) could mean your body may not be able to fight infection the way it should.

What viruses cause low WBC? ›

They help your body fight off diseases and infections. If you have too few WBCs, you have a condition known as leukopenia.
...
Several infectious diseases that can cause leukopenia include:
  • HIV or AIDS.
  • tuberculosis.
  • viral hepatitis.
  • malaria.
  • typhoid fever.
22 Nov 2021

Can stress cause low white cell count? ›

Calabrese says. In addition, stress decreases the body's lymphocytes — the white blood cells that help fight off infection. The lower your lymphocyte level, the more at risk you are for viruses, including the common cold and cold sores.

Is 3.7 WBC count too low? ›

Without enough white blood cells, including enough neutrophils, you're more vulnerable to developing infections. A white blood cell count that's less than 4,000 cells per microliter of blood is a low white blood cell count.

Can low WBC be temporary? ›

One of the most common causes of a low white blood cell count is a viral infection. These infections can sometimes temporarily disrupt the bone marrow's production of blood cells, so blood cell counts drop. The counts typically rebound as the body recovers from the infection.

Can Covid cause low white blood cell count? ›

One symptom of this disease is a reduction in the number of cells called lymphocytes in your blood. Lymphocytes are a type of white blood cell that fights infections.

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