Low white blood cell numbers, a condition known as neutropenia, results from a number of conditions such as infection, anemia and certain cancers. Neutropenia is often a side effect of cancer chemotherapy and radiation treatments that are toxic to the bone marrow, the body’s central factory of white cell production. Neutropenia is typically not serious but can become dangerous if it is associated with an infection. Talk to your doctor to learn more about causes of and treatments for neutropenia.
Treatment of Primary Condition
Neutropenia, or low white cell count, can be due to underlying infections such as tuberculosis or influenza. Cancers, particularly leukemia, can also lead to low white cell counts. The online medical dictionary Merck Manuals explains that treatment of these underlying conditions often helps neutropenia resolve on its own. Low white cell counts can also result from use of certain drugs or exposure to toxins. In such cases, discontinuing drug use or limiting exposure to toxins can resolve neutropenia.
Growth factors or cytokines such as granulocyte colony stimulating factor (G-CSF) can help bring up white cell numbers. G-CSF signals the bone marrow to produce more white blood cells. The National Neutropenia Network explains that G-CSF is administered by injection. G-CSF treatments can vary greatly in dose or duration and can be expensive.
Corticosteroids can be used to increase white cell numbers, particularly if the reason for low white cell numbers involves an autoimmune condition. Corticosteroids do not directly cause an increase in white cell production. Rather, corticosteroids promote the bone marrow to release white cells into the blood stream. The National Neutropenia Network warns, however, that corticosteroids can interfere with the bone marrow’s ability to produce certain types of white blood cells and may lead to an increase in certain infections.
The drug Neupogen is a manufactured protein that increases the bone marrow’s production of white cells. It is similar to the drugs Leukine and Neulasta. According to Tirgan Oncology Associates, a comprehensive cancer information website, an oncologist often administers these drugs to prevent a drop in white cell counts that occurs with cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation. Neupogen is injected under the skin and has few known side effects.
Stem Cell Transplant
In serious cases of loss of bone marrow function, a doctor may recommend a bone marrow or stem cell transplant. The Merck Manuals explains that this procedure is rarely used and is limited to patients with severe marrow conditions involving aplastic anemia, leukemia and radiation poisoning.
About this Author
Chad Stone is a cancer researcher based in the Pacific Northwest. Dr. Stone has been an active writer since 2003 and has published high-profile articles on the molecular mechanisms of cancer and other diseases. Dr. Stone is a specialist in cancer metastasis of breast, colon, kidney and other carcinomas.