An Overview of White Blood Cell Disorders

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White blood cells are manufactured in the bone marrow and are involved in fighting infections and inflammatory responses. Disorders of white blood cells (WBC) include leukocytosis, autoimmune neutropenia, and cyclic neutropenia. Most WBC disorders are benign, but some, like leukemia, can be malignant.


Symptoms of white blood cell disorders vary based on the type of illness, though some people do not have any symptoms at all.

Symptoms, when they occur, are predominantly related to infection and include:

  • Frequent or recurrent infections
  • Infections with unusual bacteria, viruses, or fungus
  • Fever
  • Mouth ulcers
  • Skin abscesses
  • Pneumonia


There are five major types of WBCs:

  • Neutrophils, which predominantly fight bacterial infections
  • Lymphocytes, which predominantly fight viral infections
  • Monocytes, which predominantly fight fungal infections
  • Eosinophils, which predominantly fight parasitic infections and are involved in allergic reactions
  • Basophils, which are involved in inflammatory reactions

WBC disorders can occur when there's an over- or underproduction of these cells, a problem with cellular function, or difficulty with a particular type of WBC. This can result from:

  • Certain medications
  • Viral infections
  • Severe infections
  • Autoimmune disorders
  • Cancer

Some people may also be born with a congenital white blood cell disorder.

Disorders involving too many of one type of WBC are indicated by the suffix -philia, while those related to too few WBCs end in -penia.

Common white blood cell disorders include:

  • Leukocytosis is an increased number of white blood cells. The most common causes are infection, medications like prednisone, and leukemia.
  • Leukemia is a cancer of the cells that produce white blood cells in the bone marrow.
  • Autoimmune neutropenia occurs when the body produces antibodies that attack and destroy neutrophils.
  • Severe congenital neutropenia is secondary to a genetic mutation. People with severe congenital neutropenia have recurrent bacterial infections.
  • Cyclic neutropenia is also due to a genetic mutation, similar to severe congenital neutropenia. However, the neutropenia occurs in cycles of about 21 days, rather than every day.
  • Chronic granulomatous disease is a disorder where multiple types of WBCs (neutrophils, monocytes, macrophages) are unable to function properly. It is an inherited condition and results in multiple infections, particularly pneumonia and abscesses.
  • Leukocyte adhesion deficiency is a disorder where the white blood cells are unable move to areas of infection.


As with other blood disorders, the first test commonly performed is a complete blood count (CBC). This may be specifically ordered because you are having recurrent or unusual infections and your doctor suspects a white blood cell disorder. But as a CBC is also done as part of an annual physical, the test may incidentally detect such a condition.

In reviewing results, your healthcare provider will be looking for a change in either your total WBC count or in the number of a particular type of WBC.

Normal Total WBC Counts

  • Adults: 4 to 11 billion cells per liter
  • Kids up to age 2: 9 to 30 billion cells per liter

Of note, African-Americans have lower baseline WBC counts than whites.

After the initial diagnosis, your physician will work on determining the cause of it. Sometimes the cause is temporary, like an elevation in the WBC count during an active infection. In these circumstances, the CBC is often repeated to ensure that things have returned to normal.

Your physician may also request a blood smear—a test where a small amount of blood is placed on a glass slide so a physician can review your blood cells under a microscope and look for abnormalities that might point to the cause of your disorder.

If you require further workup, your primary care provider may refer you to a specialist. WBC disorders are usually treated by hematologists who specialize in blood disorders and immunologists, who specialize in disorders of the immune system.

Since white blood cells are produced in the bone marrow, a bone marrow biopsy might be needed to complete the work-up.


Treatment will depend on the type and cause of the WBC disorder.

A few examples include:

  • Antibiotics, which are used to treat and prevent related infections
  • Growth factors, medications that can stimulate white blood cell production in the bone marrow
  • Stem cell transplantation, which can be used for curative therapy in some cases

A Word From Verywell

After learning you have a white blood cell disorder, you may be scared, uncertain about the future. This a natural feeling. Make sure you discuss your fears with your physician. Together you can come up with a plan to address these concerns.

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Article Sources

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Larosa DF, Orange JS. 1. Lymphocytes. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2008;121(2 Suppl):S364-9. doi:10.1016/j.jaci.2007.06.016

  2. George TI. Malignant or benign leukocytosis. Hematology Am Soc Hematol Educ Program. 2012;2012:475-84. doi:10.1182/asheducation-2012.1.475

  3. Riley LK, Rupert J. Evaluation of Patients with Leukocytosis. Am Fam Physician. 2015;92(11):1004-11.

Additional Reading

  • Medline Plus. Blood Count Tests.

  • University of Rochester Medical Library. What are white blood cells?

  • Kaushansky K, Lichtman MA, Prchal J, Levi MM, Press O, Burns L, Caligiuri M. (2016). Williams Hematology (9th ed.) USA. McGraw-Hill Education.