An Overview of White Blood Cell Disorders

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White blood cell disorders occur when you have too many or too few white blood cells. White blood cells, also known as leukocytes, are one of four types of cells that make up blood. They are produced in the bone marrow and play an important role in your immune system.

Doctors can measure these cells with a test called a white blood cell (WBC) count. When white blood cells are abnormally high, it usually suggests that your immune system is fighting a disease or infection. When they are too low, it suggests that a disease, autoimmune disorder, or other condition has weakened your immune system.

white blood cell disorders symptoms

Verywell / Laura Porter

While you cannot diagnose any medical condition based on a white blood cell count, the test can often be the first sign of a disease and even hint at what kind of disease you have.

This article will discuss the different types of white blood cell disorders, how to recognize them, and their causes, diagnosis, and treatment.

Types

A disorder refers to any condition that disrupts the normal functioning of the body. White blood cell disorders fall into two categories:

  • Leukopenia: A decrease in white blood cells, which can be caused by cells being destroyed or by not enough cells being made
  • Leukocytosis: An increase in white blood cells, which can be a normal response of the immune system but also caused by certain cancerous or non-cancerous diseases

There are also five major types of white blood cells, each of which has a specific function:

  • Monocytes: Frontline defenders that attack anything the immune system considers abnormal
  • Lymphocytes: Blood cells that produce immune proteins called antibodies that target and fight specific disease-causing organisms
  • Neutrophils: Blood cells that mainly fight bacterial infections
  • Eosinophils: Blood cells that mainly fight parasitic infections
  • Basophils: Blood cells that help trigger inflammation to fight infections, diseases, or toxins

Some diseases only affect one type of white blood cell, while others affect many. For instance, lymphocytic leukocytosis only affects lymphocytes, while neutrophilic leukocytosis only affects neutrophils. The type of cells affected can help doctors figure out what type of condition they are dealing with.

Recap

Leukopenia means that you have too few white blood cells. Leukocytosis means there is an excessive number of white blood cells. White blood cell disorders may only affect one type of cell, such as a neutrophil, or several.

Symptoms

Symptoms of white blood cell disorders can vary based on the underlying cause, although some people may be asymptomatic (without symptoms). If symptoms develop, they can often be non-specific. There can even be an overlap in symptoms between leukopenia and leukocytosis.

Leukopenia
  • Fever

  • Chills

  • Fatigue

  • Lightheadedness or dizziness

  • Sweating

  • A general feeling of unwellness

  • Mouth or skin sores

  • Body aches

  • Cough

  • Sore throat

  • Trouble breathing

Leukocytosis
  • Fever

  • Bleeding or bruising

  • Fatigue

  • Lightheadedness or dizziness

  • Sweating

  • Pain or tingling in the legs, arms, or abdomen

  • Vision problems

  • Unclear thinking

  • Loss of appetite

  • Trouble breathing

Causes

There are many different causes of white blood cell disorders. Some are due to a severe infection, an autoimmune disease, genetics, or cancers affecting blood cells or bone marrow.

Others are treatment-related or are caused by problems with other types of blood cells, such as red blood cells. Some are entirely idiopathic, meaning of unknown origin.

Some of the white blood cell disorders associated with leukopenia include:

  • Aplastic anemia: A rare condition in which the body stops producing enough new blood cells
  • Autoimmune neutropenia: A condition in which your immune system mistakenly attacks and destroys neutrophils
  • Congenital neutropenia: A genetic disorder in which the body doesn't make enough neutrophils
  • Cyclic neutropenia: A rare genetic disorder in which neutrophil production drops every 21 days or so
  • Chronic granulomatous disease: An genetic disorder that causes certain white blood cells to malfunction and behave abnormally
  • Leukocyte adhesion deficiencies: A group of rare genetic disorders that affect the white blood cells' ability to fight infection

Some of the white blood cell disorders associated with leukocytosis include:

  • Chronic idiopathic neutrophilia: A condition in which neutrophils remain persistently elevated for no apparent reason
  • Hemolytic anemia: A disorder in which red blood cells die faster than they are made, often due to an underlying genetic or autoimmune cause
  • Idiopathic thrombocytopenia: A condition in which your immune system mistakenly attacks and destroys blood-clotting cells called platelets
  • Lymphoma: A group of cancers that start in cells of the lymphatic system
  • Lymphocytic leukemia: A type of blood cancer that starts in lymphocytes
  • Myeloproliferative disorders: Includes six types of slowing-growing cancers that cause the overproduction of white blood cells (chronic eosinophilic leukemia, chronic myelogenous leukemia, chronic neutrophilic leukemia, essential thrombocytopenia, polycythemia vera, and primary myelofibrosis)

Diagnosis

One of the first tests used to diagnose a white blood cell disorder is a complete blood count (CBC). This test measures all of the different types of blood cells in a sample of blood. It also measures the proportion of individual blood cells, which can help narrow the possible causes.

The lab results are compared to a reference range of high and low values. Anything between the high and low values is considered normal. Anything above or below the reference range of values is considered abnormal.

The reference range for the total white blood cell (WBC) count can vary from one lab to the next but is typically described as follows:

  • Males: 5,000 to 10,000 cells per microliter of blood (cells/mL)
  • Females: 4,500 to 11,000 cells/mL
  • Newborns under two weeks of age: 9,000 to 30,000 cells/mL
  • Children and adolescents: 5,000 to 10,000 cells/mL

If your results are above or below normal, your doctor will investigate the possible causes. This may include a blood smear in which a drop of blood is placed on a glass slide and examined under the microscope to look for any abnormalities in the cell's structure.

Since white blood cells are produced in the bone marrow, a bone marrow biopsy may also be ordered to get a sample of tissue for evaluation by a pathologist.

If you require further investigation, you may be referred to a hematologist, a doctor who specializes in blood disorders, or an immunologist, a doctor who specializes in disorders of the immune system.

Recap

White blood cell disorders are commonly spotted with a complete blood count (CBC). The blood test measures the total number of white blood cells, the number of individual types of white blood cells, and the proportion of different blood cells in a sample of blood.

Treatment

The treatment of white blood cell disorders differs according to the cause. Some treatments are used to cure the disease, while others simply manage the disease and keep it in check. Others still are used to relieve symptoms or help normalize the white blood cell count.

Possible treatments include:

  • Antibiotics: Used to treat bacterial infections
  • Antiparasitic drugs: Used to treat parasitic infections that cause eosinophilia
  • Whole blood transfusion: Used to replenish the blood supply when there aren't enough healthy blood cells
  • Colony-stimulating factors (CSF): Medications that increase white blood cell production in the bone marrow
  • Glucocorticoids: A hormone that can help stimulate blood cell production
  • Immunosuppressants: Medications that reduce the immune response in people with autoimmune diseases
  • Chemotherapy and radiation: Therapies commonly used to treat cancer
  • Stem cell transplantation: Used to cure certain blood-related disorders, including myeloproliferative disorders and congenital neutropenia

White blood cell transfusions are rarely used to treat people with white blood cell disorders, Studies have shown that they neither reduce the risk of death nor prevent infection.

Summary

A white blood cell disorder is one in which the white blood cells are either abnormally low (leukopenia) or abnormally high (leukocytosis). There are many possible causes of this, including infections, genetic disorders, autoimmune diseases, and, in rare cases, cancer. There are even cases in which the cause is unknown.

White blood cell disorders often require extensive tests to uncover the underlying cause. This may include a complete blood count (CBC) and blood smear but also special procedures like a bone marrow biopsy.

The treatment of a white blood cell disorder varies by the cause. While some conditions are serious and require aggressive treatments, such as chemotherapy, others may be relatively minor and require little to no treatment.

A Word From Verywell

There is a wide range of white blood cell disorders, some of which are more serious than others. Many are chronic health concerns, meaning that you have to work closely with your doctor over the long term to keep yourself healthy.

With that said, having an abnormally high or abnormally low white blood cell count doesn't necessarily mean you have a serious disease. Some conditions are readily treatable, while others may have no known cause or symptoms.

If your white blood cell count is abnormal, try not to jump to conclusions. Instead, work with your doctor to reach a diagnosis. If you don't understand what a test result means, ask your doctor to explain so that you can participate fully in any treatment decisions.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • When should you be concerned about low or high white blood cell counts?

    For adults, the normal range of white blood cells is about 4,500 to 11,000 cell/mL. What's considered a normal range may vary slightly depending on the lab doing your test. Your healthcare provider will talk to you about your results and whether you need further testing.

  • Can you increase white blood cells naturally?

    There aren't any foods or supplements that are proven to increase your white blood cell count. However, you can reduce your risk of infection by following good hygiene and food safety practices, washing your hands often, and avoiding people who are sick.

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