What are white blood cells?

White blood cells, also known as leukocytes, make up one of the four components of blood. They can rise for several reasons including stress, smoking, allergies, bacterial or viral infections, as well as certain drugs.
White blood cells, also known as leukocytes, make up one of the four components of blood. They can rise for several reasons including stress, smoking, allergies, bacterial or viral infections, as well as certain drugs.

White blood cells, also called leukocytes, are one of the four components that make up blood. Of all the blood in the human body, white blood cells only account for about 1%. That doesn't mean they aren't important. They play a crucial role in the immune system. They also help fight off infections and diseases, so having enough white blood cells is essential. 

Your white blood cell count (WBC) is the measurement of how many white blood cells are in your body. If your count is low, your immune system is less effective at fighting off bacteria, viruses, or other diseases. 

A high white blood cell count, known as leukocytosis, can also be cause for concern. Anyone can have a high white blood cell count. It is typically caused by preexisting infections or other factors. 

Signs of a high white blood cell count

In some cases, a high WBC will correct itself. A good example of this is if you have a fever due to an infection. When your body is being attacked, it produces more white blood cells to defend against the bacteria or virus. 

In other cases, you may need additional treatment to reduce your white blood cell count. Knowing what can cause a high WBC and the possible symptoms is important in treating it. 

The signs of a high white blood cell count can vary. Quite often, there simply aren’t any. That's because the symptoms you experience, if any, typically come from the underlying cause of your high count.

If you have leukocytosis, a medical condition that causes high WBC, you may experience some of these symptoms:

  • Fever
  • Bleeding or bruising
  • Feeling faint, dizzy, or sweaty
  • Feeling tired, weak, or sick
  • Trouble breathing, seeing, or thinking
  • Pain or tingling in your limbs or abdomen
  • Unexplained weight loss or poor appetite

Causes of a high white blood cell count

Your white blood cells can surge for several reasons. Sometimes it’s a reaction to something else happening in your body. Other times, it may be caused by an underlying disease. Here's a list of some common causes of a high white blood cell count:

When to see the doctor for a high white blood cell count

A high white blood cell count is usually no surprise. You will typically have signs or knowledge of an existing condition that points to a high WBC count. Your doctor may perform a WBC test if you’re experiencing any of the following symptoms:

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Diagnosis of a high white blood cell count

The only way to truly know whether your WBC is high is for your doctor to request a white blood cell count test. The test will measure the number of white blood cells per microliter in your blood. 

The normal range for your WBC is usually 4,500 to 11,000 cells per microliter. Your WBC is generally considered high if it is greater than 11,000 cells per microliter.

Once you have your test results, your doctor will work with you to create the appropriate treatment plan, if necessary. You may also need to take additional tests to better understand your condition.

Treatments for high white blood cell count

The treatment for high white blood cell count is based on its cause. In certain cases you might not need any treatment for your high WBC. 

Here are some examples of common treatments for the underlying conditions that cause a high white blood cell count:

If you've received an official leukocytosis diagnosis, your doctor may also do a procedure called leukapheresis, which decreases your WBC by using a machine to separate and remove the white blood cells from your blood.

What are the symptoms of low white blood cell count?

White blood cells are an important constituent of blood that help the body fight any infection. Most of them are formed in the spongy center of your bones known as the bone marrow. Having low white blood cell count means your body may not be able to deal with any infection and get rid of it as quickly as it could have with normal white blood cell count.

A low white blood cell count is medically known as leukopenia. The normal range of the white blood cells is 5,000-11,000 per microliter of blood. If it goes below 4,000, the condition is termed as leukopenia. Depending on which type of white blood cell is affected, your doctor may use terms such as lymphopenia and neutropenia.

Leukopenia is not a disorder but a finding or sign in a routine blood test known as a complete blood count (CBC). Usually, the test is performed during fever or any other illness. It is also a part of a normal health checkup.

A low white blood cell count may often not cause any signs and symptoms. If it does, there may be

Fever (higher than 100.5°F)

Chills

Sweating

Remember, not all fever, chills and sweating are associated with a low white blood cell count. Your doctor will ask you to follow-up with another test to monitor the levels of the white blood cells. They can order further tests to find out the underlying cause of your leucopenia.

What causes your white blood cell count to become low?

Various conditions can cause your white blood cell count to become low. These include

Infectious conditions (most common):

Disorders of the bone marrow:

Bone marrow is the place where the production of white blood cells takes place. Conditions or situations that affect the bone marrow can lower your white blood cell count. These include

  • Aplastic anemia (a disorder when your bone marrow stops making new blood cells)
  • Exposure to certain chemicals such as benzene and pesticides
  • Chemotherapy (a cancer therapy that uses anticancer medications)
  • Radiation (a cancer therapy that makes use of high-energy waves to destroy the cancerous cells)
  • Bone marrow transplant

Some rare bone marrow conditions that cause a low white blood cell count include:

  • Myelodysplastic syndromes
  • Myeloproliferative syndrome
  • Myelofibrosis

Autoimmune disorders:

The immune system in some autoimmune disorders fails to differentiate between germs that attack the body and the body’s own cells such as the white blood cells. These conditions can cause your white blood cell count to become low. These include

Problems with the spleen:

Along with the bone marrow, the spleen also makes white blood cells. Inflammation of the spleen due to infections (such as malaria) and blood clots can lower your white blood cell count.

The spleen also helps filter damaged blood cells from your system. If it becomes overactive (medically known as hypersplenism), it removes all types of blood cells, whether they are damaged or healthy, including the white blood cells from your body. This lowers your white blood cells count.

Sarcoidosis:

It is a disorder characterized by accumulation of inflammatory cells in the body that form lumps (granulomas) in various organs of the body.

Medicines:

Arsenic poisoning can also cause leucopenia in some cases.

Vitamin deficiencies:

Not eating well can result in vitamin deficiencies such as those of vitamin B12, folic acid/folate, copper, and zinc. These nutritional deficiencies can cause the white blood cell count to become low.

Alcohol abuse can interfere with vitamin metabolism and cause a decrease in the white blood cell count.

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Medically Reviewed on 2/28/2022
References
American Family Physician: "Evaluation of Patients with Leukocytosis."

Cancer Research UK: "Treatment to remove abnormal white blood cells (leukapheresis)."

Cleveland Clinic: "High White Blood Cell Count."

Lab Tests Online: "White Blood Cell Count (WBC)."

Mayo Clinic: "High white blood cell count."

Mayo Clinic: "Low blood cell counts: Side effect of cancer treatment."

Mayo Clinic: "Low white blood cell count."

Leukemia & Lymphoma Society: "Understanding Blood Counts."

Middlesex Health: "High white blood cell count."