Lymphopenia is When You Don't Have Enough Lymphocytes

Lymphocytes are a type of white blood cells. Photo © A.D.A.M.

Lymphopenia is when you don't have enough lymphocytes, which are a subset of white blood cells. The word is a combination of lymphocyte, which is a type of infection-fighting white blood cell, and penia, a word ending that means "deficiency."

Lymphocytes are a subset of white blood cells that are one of three main types of blood cells. The overwhelming majority of these cells are the red blood cells (erythrocyte), which bind to oxygen.

The second most common, but still relatively few compared to the erythrocytes are the thrombocytes (platelets) that clot the blood. The least common types are the white blood cells (leukocytes), which are essential to the body's immune system. These cells form in the bone marrow and then enter the blood circulation or travel to other parts of the body. Wherever they are, they work to attack or identify parasites, viruses or harmful bacteria.

Causes of Lymphopenia

Reduced production of blood cells can be caused by many conditions, but it's also a common side effect from medication. For example, treatment for chronic viral hepatitis, with peginterferon and ribavirin, sometimes causes suppression of the white blood cells (leukopenia) and sometimes specifically neutropenia (low neutrophils) or lymphopenia.

White blood cells are manufactured in bone marrow — the spongy tissue inside some of your larger bones.

A low white blood cell count usually can also be caused by:

  1. Viral infections that temporarily disrupt the work of bone marrow
  2. Certain disorders present at birth (congenital) that involve diminished bone marrow function
  3. Cancer (or other diseases that damage bone marrow)
  4. Autoimmune disorders that destroy white blood cells or bone marrow cells
  1. Severe infections that use up white blood cells faster than they can be produced
  2. Medications, such as antibiotics, that destroy white blood cells
  3. Sarcoidosis

Specific causes of a low white blood cell count include:

  1. Aplastic anemia
  2. Chemotherapy
  3. Radiation therapy
  5. Hypersplenism — a premature destruction of blood cells by the spleen
  6. Tuberculosis (and other infectious diseases)
  7. Kostmann's syndrome — a congenital disorder involving low production of neutrophils
  8. Leukemia
  9. Lupus
  10. Rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune disorders
  11. Malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies
  12. Myelodysplastic syndromes
  13. Myelokathexis — a congenital disorder involving failure of neutrophils to enter the bloodstream

When to See a Doctor

A low white blood cell count is often discovered when your doctor orders tests for a condition you're already experiencing. Rarely is a low white blood cell count an unexpected finding or simply discovered by chance.

Talk to your doctor about what your test results mean. A low white blood cell count, along with results from other tests, might already indicate the cause of your illness. Or your doctor may suggest other tests to further check your condition.

Because a chronic very low white blood cell count makes you vulnerable to infections, ask your doctor about precautions to avoid catching contagious diseases.

Always wash your hands regularly and thoroughly. You might also be advised to wear a face mask and avoid anyone with a cold or other illness.


Mayo Clinic. Low White Blood Cell Count.

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