What is neutropenia?


Neutropenia: Overview

Neutropenia (say "noo-truh-PEE-nee-uh") means that your blood has too few neutrophils. These are white blood cells that help protect the body from infection. They do this by killing bacteria.

Neutropenia can be caused by some types of infection. It also can be caused by immune system conditions such as HIV or lupus, a lack of vitamin B12 or folic acid, or an enlarged spleen. Some medicines can cause it too. It is most often caused by treatments for certain health problems, such as chemotherapy and radiation treatment for cancer.

Mild neutropenia usually causes no symptoms. But when it's severe, it increases the risk of infection of your skin and organs. That's because your body can't fight off germs as well as it should.


Neutropenia is an abnormally low number of neutrophils in a person's blood. A neutrophil is a type of white blood cell that helps protect the body against infection by destroying bacteria.

Neutropenia may be caused by certain cancers, exposure to radiation, some kinds of infection (such as HIV infection), a lack of vitamin B12 or folic acid, an autoimmune disease (such as lupus), or treatment for certain diseases (such as chemotherapy for cancer).

What happens when you have neutropenia?

When you have neutropenia, you can get infections easily because your white blood cell count is low. Your body can't fight off germs as well as it should. Even a mild infection can quickly become serious. So it's important to take extra measures to avoid infections and to be alert for signs of infection. Your doctor can tell you how long to keep up these precautions.

What are the signs of an infection when you have neutropenia?

Fever is a common sign of infection. So if you have neutropenia, your doctor may ask you to check your temperature every day and keep a written record of your readings.

Common signs of infection include:

  • Fever of 100.4 °F (38 °C) or higher. (This may be the only symptom.)
  • Chills or sweating.
  • Cough or shortness of breath.
  • Nausea or vomiting.
  • Redness, pain, swelling, or warmth around a sore or I.V. site.

Other possible signs include a sore throat or mouth sores, vaginal drainage or itching, diarrhea, pain when you urinate, and a need to urinate often.

How is neutropenia treated?

If your white blood cell count is very low, your doctor may give you medicine to help protect you, such as:

  • Antibiotics to help prevent infection.
  • Medicine to help your body make white blood cells.

If you get an infection or a fever, you may need to be treated in the hospital. To fight the infection, your doctor may give you antibiotics through a vein (intravenous, or I.V.). This gets the medicine into your bloodstream quickly. Some people may be allowed to take antibiotics by mouth.

How is neutropenia diagnosed?

Neutropenia is sometimes found during a routine blood test. Your doctor will ask about your past health and any symptoms you have. You may have a physical exam. You may also have tests to check the level of white blood cells and other blood cells. Other tests may be done to find the cause.

How can you care for neutropenia?

  • Take your medicines exactly as prescribed. Call your doctor if you have any problems with your medicine.
  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet. Eat foods with a lot of fiber. This helps to prevent constipation.

Prevent infections

  • Take your temperature several times a day, as your doctor suggests. Keep a written record of your temperature readings. Fever is a common symptom of infection. And it may be the only symptom.
  • Use a soft toothbrush. Do not floss your teeth. Talk with your doctor about other steps to prevent infections in your mouth.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water, especially before you eat and after you use the bathroom.
  • If you are a woman, use sanitary napkins (pads) instead of tampons. Do not douche.
  • Do not use rectal thermometers or suppositories.
  • Avoid tasks that might expose you to germs, such as disposing of pet feces or urine.
  • Avoid crowds of people and anyone who might have an infection or an illness such as a cold or the flu. You may need to avoid people who have recently had certain kinds of vaccinations.
  • Even small injuries can get infected. Take steps to prevent cuts, burns, and sunburns.
  • If you have severe neutropenia, your doctor may advise you to avoid fresh fruits, vegetables, and flowers.

What is neutropenia?

Neutropenia (say "noo-truh-PEE-nee-uh") means that your blood has too few white blood cells called neutrophils. White blood cells are an important part of your body's immune system. Neutrophils help protect your body from infection by killing bacteria.

What causes neutropenia?

Neutropenia is often caused by cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation. These treatments destroy cancer cells. But they can also decrease your body's ability to make white blood cells.

Other causes include:

  • Immune system conditions such as HIV or lupus.
  • Cancers such as leukemia and myelodysplastic syndromes. These cancers cause the body to make abnormal blood cells.
  • Some types of infection.
  • Low levels of vitamin B12 or folate.
  • An enlarged spleen.

What should you look for when shopping for food if you have a low white blood cell count?

  • Buy wrapped, pre-packaged foods, such as breads, bagels, muffins, rolls, cereals, noodles, and rice. Avoid open-bin bulk foods.
  • Look for foods that are packed as single servings. You will be less likely to have leftovers, which can spoil quickly.
  • Buy only pasteurized dairy products and pasteurized juices. Avoid raw milk, any yogurt or cheeses made with raw milk, and unpasteurized juice.
  • Be sure to wash all fresh fruits and vegetables well. You may want to switch from fresh fruits and vegetables to cooked, canned, or frozen fruits and vegetables during treatment.
  • Make sure that canned foods are safe. Check sell-by dates, and look for dents and other damage. Don't buy damaged or out-of-date cans.

Neutropenia: When to call

Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • You have severe shortness of breath.
  • You passed out (lost consciousness).

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You have a fever or chills. Or you may be sweating.
  • You have signs of infection, such as:
    • Increased pain, swelling, warmth, or redness of your skin.
    • Red streaks leading from a wound.
    • Pus draining from a wound.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • You do not get better as expected.

©2011-2024 Healthwise, Incorporated

The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.