Neutropenia

Sounds like 'noo-troh-PEE-nee-uh'

Neutropenia means “not enough neutrophils” – a type of white blood cell that helps your body fight infection. Having neutropenia increases your risk of picking up infections.

What is neutropenia?

Neutropenia is when you have a lower than normal number of neutrophils in your blood. Neutrophils are a type of white blood cell. White blood cells are an important part of your immune system; they help to protect your body against infections.

When there are not enough white cells in your blood, you can get infections more easily. You need to take special care to avoid infections when your neutrophil count is low.

The normal count of neutrophils in the blood is between 1.5 and 5.5. A count below 1 is called neutropenia.

What causes neutropenia?

There are a number of causes of neutropenia. Some people are born with low neutrophils, other people develop conditions that cause low neutrophils – these include:

  • infections caused by viruses such as viral hepatitis
  • use of certain medicines
  • cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation (your neutrophil count is usually at its lowest 5 to 14 days after cancer treatment but this can vary between different chemotherapy drugs)
  • bone marrow disorders
  • medical conditions that can affect the immune system, such as lupus.

How do I know if my neutrophil count is low?

A low neutrophil count may be discovered accidentally while having a routine blood test. Often in these situations, people don't have any symptoms of infection. The only way to know for sure that there is a low number of neutrophils in your body is to have a blood sample taken and tested in the lab. This is called your 'neutrophil count'.

Typical symptoms

Since having neutropenia puts you at increased risk of infection, you may have one or more of these symptoms:

  • fever (temperature over 38°C)
  • chills or shaking
  • unusual sweating
  • sore throat
  • mouth ulcers
  • burning feeling when passing urine; more frequent urination
  • diarrhoea (runny poos).
If you have one or more of the symptoms above, contact your doctor immediately. 
People with neutropenia who develop an infection can become seriously ill very quickly. In some cases, this can be life-threatening. Some people who have neutropenia are more at risk of becoming seriously ill than other people. This may be because they have other illnesses as well as their cancer. They may have a more severe infection.

How can I prevent neutropenia?

You cannot prevent neutropenia from occurring, but you can decrease your risk of getting an infection while your white blood cell count is low.

Tips to prevent an infection

  • Wash your hands often.
  • Clean your teeth and gums with a soft toothbrush, and if your doctor or nurse recommends one, use a mouthwash to prevent mouth sores.
  • Shower or bathe daily and use an unscented lotion to prevent your skin from becoming dry and cracked.
  • Do not share food, drink cups, utensils or other personal items, such as toothbrushes.
  • Try to avoid crowded places and contact with people who are sick.
  • Cook meat and eggs all the way through to kill any germs.
  • Carefully wash raw fruits and vegetables.
  • Try and keep all your household surfaces clean.
  • Protect your skin from direct contact with pet bodily waste (urine or faeces) by wearing vinyl or household cleaning gloves when cleaning up after your pet. Wash your hands immediately afterwards.
  • Use gloves for gardening.
  • Get your flu vaccination every year.

Learn more

References

  1. Complete blood count in primary care BPAC 2008
Credits: Editorial team. Reviewed By: Sarah Hyder, POAC Regional Nurse Advisor, Auckland Last reviewed: 25 Jan 2019