What Is Lymphocytopenia?
Lymphocytopenia means there’s too few of a certain type of white blood cells known as lymphocytes in the blood. Lymphocytes are part of your immune system. There are two main types:
- B-lymphocytes make antibodies -- proteins that help your body spot and kill germs.
- T-cell lymphocytes kill cells that cause damage and warn healthy cells about harmful cells.
When you don’t have enough of this type of white blood cell, you’re at a high risk of getting infections. You may get lymphocytopenia for several reasons, including:
- Your body doesn’t make enough white blood cells.
- A condition or disease destroys them.
- Your spleen or lymph nodes trap them.
Any of these things can happen if you’ve recently had surgery or an infection or are taking certain medications.
What Are the Symptoms of Lymphocytopenia?
If you have lymphocytopenia, typically, you’ll also often have infections. That’s because your immune system isn’t as strong as it should be. You can have these infections in many different parts of your body.
If your lymphocytopenia is mild, you may not have many symptoms at all. Often, the ones you do have come from the condition that’s behind your lymphocytopenia.
How Do Doctors Diagnose Lymphocytopenia?
The best way for a doctor to find out if you have lymphocytopenia is to look at a sample of your blood. A health care provider will draw blood from your arm using a syringe. It will be examined in a lab. If the results show you’re low in lymphocytes, it means you have the disorder.
Your doctor may then test you for specific infections that could have caused lymphocytopenia, including HIV. She might also look at which kinds of white blood cells you’re low on for more clues. You may need to see an infectious disease doctor, hematologist (blood doctor), or immunologist (immune system doctor) for this part of your diagnosis.
What Are Causes and Risk Factors for Lymphocytopenia?
You might have short-term (acute) lymphocytopenia because of a passing condition or situation. Usually, this type gets better over time. Causes for acute lymphocytopenia include:
- Infections such as the flu and viral hepatitis
- Serious stress
- Medications called corticosteroids (such as prednisone)
- Chemotherapy or radiation
You may also have ongoing (chronic) lymphocytopenia. This might happen when you have:
- Autoimmune disorders such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and myasthenia gravis (a disease that causes muscle weakness)
- Long-term infections such as AIDS and tuberculosis
- Cancers such as leukemia or lymphoma
- Blood diseases such as aplastic anemia
You can also get it from genes you’re born with that cause certain diseases. Lymphocytopenia from these rare disorders is permanent. They include:
- DiGeorge anomaly
- Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome
- Severe combined immunodeficiency syndrome
The two most common causes of lymphocytopenia are AIDS and not eating enough.
What Is the Treatment for Lymphocytopenia? Is Prevention Possible?
The type of treatment you get depends on what’s causing your disorder. If you have only a mild case, it may go away on its own without treatment. Treatment options include:
- Stopping the medication that’s causing it
- Getting treatment for the infection that’s causing it, such as AIDS, or a bacterial, viral, or fungal infection
- Treatment with antibodies (gamma globulin) to help prevent infections if you’re low in B cells and need extra antibodies
- Stem cell transplant for inherited causes
You can also take steps to lower your risk of infection by practicing good hygiene. You can:
- Avoid large crowds and people who are sick
- Only eat well-cooked foods that aren’t at risk of carrying harmful bacteria
- Wash your hands well and often
- Brush and floss regularly
- Stay up to date on your vaccines
National Cancer Institute: “Lymphocyte.”
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: “Lymphocytopenia.”
Merck Manual: “Lymphocytopenia.”