What is Neutropenia?

neutropeniaNeutropenia is a very rare blood condition that causes a reduced number or complete lack of neutrophils. Neutrophils are a type of blood cell that defends the body against bacterial infections. Sometimes the term Severe Chronic Neutropenia (SNC) may be used to describe a group of conditions in which Neutropenia is the primary problem. Types of Neutropenia include Congenital, Idiopathic, Cyclic and Autoimmune.

The Body and Blood

The medical term for the formation of blood cells is haematopoiesis. Formation takes place in the marrow inside bones like the pelvic bone and the breastbone.

There are three basic types of blood cells:

Red blood cells: Also called erythrocytes, they carry oxygen to all other tissues of the body. About 3 million red blood cells are produced every second. These cells live and carry oxygen effectively for about four months.

Platelets: Also called thrombocytes, they are essential for the clotting of the blood. Most platelet clotting happens at the point of an injury such as a scratch or cut. They effectively reduce or stop the loss of blood from an injury. Normal counts are 150 and 400 million per milliliter of blood.

White Blood Cells: Also called leukocytes, this group of cells is responsible for fighting infections in the body. About 120,000 while blood cells are produced every second. There are three types of white blood cells: granulocytes, monocytes, and lymphocytes. Neutrophils make up most of the granulocytes.

Neutrophils and Neutropenia

Neutrophils are the type of white blood cell that attack bacteria in the blood. (see video link in the sidebar for a real neutrophil in action). There a few different reasons a person could develop Neutropenia. Patients on chemotherapy can become neutropenic. Often these patients will revert to normal neutrophil levels should chemotherapy cease. Certain viral infections are also sometimes the cause. Others are simply born with the condition or the reason may not be known.

The duration of Neutropenia may be short lived; however, should someone have Neutropenia symptoms consistently for longer than three months they are considered to be suffering from Chronic Neutropenia.

Neutrophil Levels

Normal level: 1500 to 7000 neutrophils per mm3 of blood.

Mild Neutropenia: when the ANC falls below a lower limit of 1500 per mm3 (1.5 x 109/l), but remains higher than 1000 per mm3 (1.0 x 109/l).

Moderate Neutropenia: when the ANC falls between 500 per mm3 and 1000 per mm3 (0.5 x 109/l – 1.0 x 109/l).

Severe Neutropenia: when the ANC falls below 500 per mm3 (0.5 x 109/l).

Symptoms patients experience depend on the level of Neutropenia. The lower the neutrophil count, the greater the risk of infection. This risk increases if low neutrophil counts persist for more than three days. Types of infection include otitis media; tonsillitis; sore throat; mouth ulcers; gum infection and skin abscesses. Any fever above 38.5°C/101.3°F must be taken very seriously and your nurse or physician should be informed.

Severe Neutropenia can lead to serious problems, which require prompt care since the patient could potentially develop a bacterial, fungal or mixed infection at any time. These infections can be life threatening and it is therefore important the patient be seen by a doctor as soon as possible that if the patient develops any signs or symptoms of an infection. They should then be treated with medications such as antibiotics to fight the infection.