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Neutropenia is a condition in which there aren’t enough neutrophils, which are a type of white blood cell. This leads to increased risk of serious bacterial infections. Neutropenia is diagnosed by a blood test. The treatment depends on the cause of neutropenia and how severe it is.

What is neutropenia?

Neutropenia is not a disease. It is a condition in which there aren’t enough neutrophils.

White blood cells help fight infection, so people with neutropenia are susceptible to infections.

Neutropenia can be:

  • acute, meaning it has come on suddenly (and can also go away quickly)
  • chronic, meaning it has been there for a long time
  • cyclic, which means it comes and goes

Febrile neutropenia is generally a complication of cancer treatment. It occurs when you have a temperature of 38°C or higher, alongside other signs of infection, such as shivers, shakes and feeling unwell while you have neutropenia. It is a life-threatening condition requiring immediate medical attention.

What causes neutropenia?

There are many causes of neutropenia.

Some people have neutropenia from birth — this is known as congenital neutropenia.

It can come on after an infection from a bacteria or fungus, after taking certain medications, due to an allergic disorder, due to an enlarged spleen or because of problems with the immune system.

One common cause of neutropenia is cancer treatment, such as chemotherapy. The chemotherapy kills the white cells while it is attacking the cancer cells. This leaves people on chemotherapy vulnerable to infections.

Neutropenia symptoms

If you have neutropenia, you might have no symptoms at all.

Some people get bacterial infections on different parts of the body like their skin, mouth area and gums, sinuses or internal organs such as their lungs.

If you have neutropenia and have a fever, you should see your doctor immediately or go to the nearest emergency department.

Neutropenia diagnosis and treatment

Neutropenia is diagnosed by a blood test. Other tests such as a bone marrow test might be needed to find out the cause.

The treatment will depend on the cause of the neutropenia, and how severe it is.

If you have neutropenia, you should try to protect yourself against getting infections. You can do this by:

  • washing your hands regularly
  • avoiding large crowds
  • staying away from people who are sick
  • not sharing drinking glasses, cutlery or toothbrushes with anyone
  • cleaning any scratches or scrapes carefully
  • wearing gloves and shoes when gardening
  • avoiding pet or animal poo
  • eating well and getting enough sleep

If you think you might have an infection, see you doctor quickly or go to the nearest emergency department.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: April 2020

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