What Are Degenerate Neutrophils?

Sometimes they are an indicator of disease

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Degenerate neutrophils can be detected in certain blood tests. Neutrophils are the most common type of white blood cell. As with all white blood cells, neutrophils degenerate (break down) as the body makes new ones.

It is normal to have some degenerate neutrophils circulating in the blood. However, an excess of these cells can be an indication of disease.

This article will discuss what a finding of degenerate neutrophils on a blood test may mean, what can cause these blood cells, and what further action your healthcare provider may take.

Person getting blood drawn. Degenerate neutrophils are identified with a blood test

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What Are Neutrophils?

Neutrophils are white blood cells that work to fight infectious organisms and help manage disease. Normally, healthy neutrophils make up about 40%–60% of leukocytes (white blood cells). They number 2,500–6,000 per cubic millimeter (cu Mm). These measurements can be obtained with a complete blood count (CBC), which is a blood test. 

Common reasons for high or low neutrophil counts include:

  • You might have an increased number or percentage of neutrophils while you have an infection, which will return to a normal level as the infection resolves.
  • Some diseases, especially blood cancers, can cause neutrophilia (a high neutrophil count), and the neutrophils may be abnormal in their structure or function.
  • You can have neutropenia (low neutrophils) with some diseases and as a side effect of some medications, such as chemotherapy. 

What Are Degenerate Neutrophils?

Neutrophils are produced in the bone marrow and released into the bloodstream, where they generally survive for about 24 hours. Degenerate neutrophils are neutrophils that are disintegrating. They are part of the normal process of cell turnover as neutrophils break down to be replaced with new neutrophils.

Additionally, as neutrophils do their job in fighting disease, they use many of their components to do so, and then they decompose.

Appearance

Neutrophils that are degenerating can be seen on a blood or tissue sample when examined with a microscope. Your healthcare provider may order a blood smear along with a CBC. In a blood smear, a slide is prepared, stained, and examined microscopically by a lab professional.

Under the microscope, degenerate neutrophil cells can appear swollen or pale, and the regions inside the neutrophil cell might not be well-formed. The presence of degenerate neutrophils may then be noted in the test results.

What Does It Mean to Have Many Degenerate Neutrophils?

A large amount of degenerate neutrophils may indicate disease. They can occur due to a recent infection, in which many neutrophils were present before they degenerated. This condition is usually short term and will resolve on its own when your body naturally produces more neutrophils.

Conditions that can result in degenerate neutrophils include:

  • Inflammatory conditions
  • Autoimmune conditions (in which the immune system mistakenly attacks the body's own tissues)
  • Infections

In these conditions, degenerate neutrophils may be present, but they aren’t the primary factor in making a diagnosis. 

In systemic conditions (those that affect the entire body), degenerate neutrophils may be identified with routine blood tests. Sometimes these cells are only present in the affected tissue, not in the blood.

What Should You Do About Degenerate Neutrophils?

If you have too many degenerate neutrophils, this could mean that you have an infection or another medical condition. Your healthcare provider may do other tests to determine what is going on. Additional testing is guided by your symptoms, medical history, and a physical examination. 

The presence of degenerate neutrophils may indicate a subclinical disease, which is a condition that isn't causing obvious symptoms.

Treatment

Your treatment will be directed toward your illness and not specifically toward correcting your neutrophil count. As your treatment progresses, your degenerate neutrophils are likely to be replaced with healthy ones.

Often, after treatment, you will have repeat tests to ensure that diagnostic signs of illness are resolving. 

Summary 

Degenerate neutrophils are a type of white blood cell that is being broken down by the body. This happens as part of normal cell turnover, and it can also be part of an infection that will resolve, or part of a disease process.

Generally, degenerate neutrophils are identified on a blood smear microscopic examination, and they can also be seen in some types of diseased tissue.

If you have degenerate neutrophils, your healthcare provider will do further testing based on your medical symptoms and physical examination to determine the cause and decide on a treatment plan. 

A Word From Verywell 

Seeing a word like "degenerate" on a medical test report can be concerning. It is appropriate to ask your healthcare provider what it might mean.

Neutrophils are the most common type of white blood cell in your body, and neutrophil changes can be a helpful indicator of disease. Often, degenerate neutrophils increase temporarily and will normalize after an infection resolves.

If your medical team is concerned about a chronic problem associated with your laboratory result of degenerate neutrophils, you may need further testing and treatment. 

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5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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