What is neutropenia?
Neutropenia is a condition in which a person has very low amounts of a type of white blood cell called a neutrophil. There are many types of white blood cells. Each type has a certain role. But their main job is to fight infection. White blood cells attack harmful bacteria, viruses, and fungi. So having neutropenia increases the risk of infections.
Neutropenia is often seen in children getting chemotherapy or radiation. These treatments can sometimes weaken the immune system by causing myelosuppression, the slowing down of normal production of blood cells.
The degree of neutropenia depends on the cancer treatment used. It also depends on the disease, the stage of the cancer, and where it is located. Also at high risk are those stem cell transplants who high doses of chemotherapy, sometimes with total body irradiation.
Neutropenic effects can build up over time as treatment goes on. If you have round after round of chemotherapy, you are at risk. If you start treatment with an already weak immune system, you're also at risk.
Symptoms of neutropenia
Symptoms of low white blood cells (neutropenia) can include:
- Fever and chills
- Mouth sores
- Sore throat or pain when swallowing
- Pain or burning when passing urine
- Cough or shortness of breath
- Signs of infection anywhere in the body such as swelling, pus, redness, warmth
If you are at high risk for infection with neutropenia, your healthcare providers may give you medicine to help prevent an infection before it actually develops. Bacterial infections are most common. Antibiotics that cover a broad range of bacteria are often used as a preventive treatment. Healthcare providers may call this type of preventive treatment a prophylactic treatment.
The overuse of antibiotics causing resistant strains of bacteria is concerning. But the consequences of not using them are of greater concern. Infections can cause a delay in chemotherapy or radiation treatment. This may negatively affect the long-term effectiveness of these treatments.
If you're getting a transplant or are going to be neutropenic for a long time, you may also be given prophylactic medicine to help prevent infection with a fungus or virus.