Symptoms of Leukopenia

Leukopenia occurs when your white blood cell (WBC) count is low. White blood cells are a vital part of your immune system. They help fight off pathogens in your body. Typically, the condition doesn't present with any distinct symptoms, but a low WBC count can increase the risk of infections. You may not notice that you have leukopenia until you become sick and develop symptoms of an infection.

In this article, we discuss symptoms you might have and why you may not have any with leukopenia.

An ill woman checking her temperature in bed

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Frequent Symptoms

There are trillions of blood cells in your body, and millions more are made every second. Red blood cells carry oxygen and other nutrients through your body, while white blood cells fight infections and heal wounds. These cells work constantly to keep your body running, and chances are you don't even think about these cells until there is a problem.

It's normal for your white blood cell (WBC) count to fluctuate. When you have an infection, your body creates more cells to help fight it off. If you are taking certain medications or have an autoimmune disease, your white blood cell count may drop.

You won't feel the number of cells changing because leukopenia doesn't cause any symptoms, but you'll notice symptoms of an infection.

How Low Is Too Low?

A white blood cell count of less than 4,500 cells per microliter of blood is considered low. If you're known to have a low white blood cell count, your doctor will monitor you and advise you on ways to prevent infections. In some cases, your WBC can fluctuate as your body tries to overcome infection.

The most common symptoms of an infection include:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Body ache
  • Headache

If you aren't getting better after some treatment and some time, your doctor may order a test to count your white blood cells. It's typical to see a higher WBC count while your body is fighting a bacterial infection, but your WBC count often goes down with a viral infection.

It can be difficult to determine whether these symptoms are from a condition that is causing your low WBC count or if you have an infection. You doctor will perform a number of lab tests to get a clearer picture.

Rare Symptoms

In some cases, your low white blood cell count can progress to a severe, even life-threatening infection. Sepsis is a severe, possibly fatal infection that occurs when chemicals released in the bloodstream to fight an infection trigger inflammation throughout the body. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that about 1.7 million Americans develop sepsis each year, and about 270,000 die from the infection.

People who are immunocompromised and have a low WBC count are at a higher risk of developing sepsis from even a simple infection.

Symptoms of sepsis may include:

Complications

There are some groups of people who are more prone to having a low WBC count and experiencing severe infections. Primarily, these are people who have a compromised immune system because of a disease, age, or a genetic condition, such as:

When to See a Doctor/Go to the Hospital

If you know you have a condition or you are taking a medication that can lower your body's ability to fight infections, you should discuss precautions you can take to avoid severe infection with your doctor. These may include avoiding large groups, strict hygiene, avoiding animals, or even avoiding uncooked fruits and vegetables.

Ask your doctor if they are concerned about your WBC count and if you will need additional tests. If your WBC count is low and you feel like you have an infection, contact your healthcare provider right away.

Call your doctor or seek treatment immediately if you have:

  • A fever above 100.4 F
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Extreme weakness
  • Severe diarrhea that won't go away or is bloody
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Loss of appetite or inability to keep food or drink down
  • Stiff neck
  • Abdominal pain
  • Confusion

Summary

Leukopenia, which is having a low white blood cell count, usually doesn't cause any symptoms, and you won't know you have the condition until your doctor checks your WBC count with a blood test. However, leukopenia increases your risk of infections, and you will have symptoms if you develop one. They can include fever, chills, body aches, and headaches. A severe infection that can develop is sepsis, which is characterized by widespread inflammation in your body. If you have signs of an infection, contact your doctor right away.

A Word From Verywell

Leukopenia occurs when you don't have as many white blood cells to fight infection as you should. In early leukopenia, you may have no symptoms at all, but as infections take hold, you may experience a number of symptoms depending on what kind of infection you've developed. Leukopenia isn't painful or an event that is dangerous on its own, but it increases your risk of developing a severe, possibly life-threatening condition.

Frequently Asked Questions 

How do you know when you have an infection associated with leukopenia?

You may not be able to tell if your infection is related to leukopenia. Symptoms of different types of infection are very similar. If your condition isn't getting better over time or is getting worse, your doctor may perform blood tests that reveal leukopenia.

What causes leukopenia?

A number of conditions can cause leukopenia. These can include autoimmune diseases and conditions that weaken the immune system, such as hepatitis and HIV infection. Radiation therapy for cancer and antipsychotic medications can also lower your WBC count.

What is the survival rate of leukopenia?

Survival rates for leukopenia are difficult to estimate. In many cases, leukopenia is part of a larger disease process that contributes to severe illness or death. Some examples include leukemia and genetic disorders that harm the production of white blood cells. Leukopenia alone is not usually listed as a cause of death, but it is a contributor to death in some cases.

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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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