What does it mean when I have neutropenia?
Neutropenia is a condition when your neutrophil count falls below normal levels. It is diagnosed when your physician orders a CBC (complete blood count) and finds that the number of neutrophils is less than the expected either in terms of relative percentage of neutrophils to other white blood cells or their absolute numbers. Neutropenia puts you at a higher risk of developing infections especially bacterial infections. In severe cases, such deficiency can prove life-threatening with the development of overwhelming bacterial infection, a condition known as “neutropenic sepsis”.
The severity of neutropenia is related to the degree of deficiency, the fewer the cells, the greater the risk and severity of infections. If the count falls enough, even the normal harmless bacteria living on the surface of our skin and in our gastrointestinal tract can turn against us causing what is known as “opportunistic infections”. Causes of neutropenia include:
- Bone marrow abnormalities causing decreased production of the cells from their mother cells whether as a part of a congenital anomaly or from several deficiencies of nutritional elements.
- Infections: Although white blood cell count generally rises in response to infection, some types of infections can cause a transient fall of neutrophils. They include typhoid, tuberculosis and parvovirus among others.
- Radiation exposure: Exposure to radiation greatly affects the bone marrow if given in excess. People at high risk of exposure include cancer patients undergoing radiation exposure and those working at nuclear plants.
- Drug reactions: Some drugs can cause a fall of white blood cell count especially neutrophils via various mechanisms through the bone marrow or through autoimmune mechanisms. They include chemotherapeutic agents as well as antibiotics and some anti-seizure medications.
- Autoimmune diseases: Some autoimmune diseases such as systemic lupus can manifest by deficiencies in blood cells including white blood cells.
- Cancer: Cancers such as leukemias and lymphomas can cause cellular deficiencies through the invasion of the bone marrow, impinging on the normal cells and hindering their division.