White blood cells, also known as leukocytes, are the part of the serum that forms the immune system and protects against disease and foreign invaders. There are five types of white blood cells: neutrophils, lymphocytes, eosinophils, monocytes, and basophils. Each type of white blood cell has a unique function. For example, neutrophils help rid the body of bacteria and fungi, while basophils combat inflammation. A normal white blood cell count for an adult ranges between 3,500 and 10,500 blood cells per microliter (mcL) of blood.
Symptoms of Abnormal White Blood Cell Count
Symptoms of a low white blood cell count include general fatigue, body aches, fever, chills, and headaches. With a low white blood cell count, cuts and bruises may not heal as quickly and are more likely to become infected. Conversely, high white blood cell levels are generally asymptomatic.
Causes of Low White Blood Cell Count
A low white blood cell count can be caused by many things. Some medical treatments, such as chemotherapy, cause the white blood count to drop. Diseases like HIV/AIDS that weaken the immune system are also characterized by a low white blood cell count.
Causes of High White Blood Cell Count
In most cases, people don’t need to worry about having a high white blood cell count. It means your body is extra skilled at fighting disease. However, occasionally a high white blood cell count can be a sign of the body attacking itself, as happens with auto-immune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and psoriasis.
Functions of White Blood Cells
All white blood cells carry out three main functions. First, they ingest disease-causing bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Secondly, they destroy these threats to the body and cause them to be flushed from the body. Finally, white blood cells produce specialized proteins called antibodies that prevent similar threats from attacking the body in the future.
Treatment for Low Blood Cell Count
Since a low blood cell count, also called neutropenia, can be caused by a number of factors, effective treatment hinges on addressing the underlying condition. Initial treatment includes correcting any vitamin deficiencies (such as B12) and removing any drugs or toxins that may be contributing to the low white blood cell count.
Dangers of Abnormal White Blood Cell Count
An abnormally low white blood cell leaves the body vulnerable to any number of infections, bacteria, viruses, and pathogens in the environment. Without the necessary white blood cells and the antibodies they produce, something that is relatively minor to a healthy person, such as a cut or a cold, can become very serious to a person with a low white blood cell count.
Treatment for High White Blood Cell Count
A high white blood cell count, also known as leukocytosis, could be a sign of an undetected infection (and the immune system ramping up to fight it). It can also be a sign of stress or in rare cases, blood cancer. Smoking and excessive exercise can also increase white blood cells. The best treatment is to determine and address the underlying cause.
When to See a Doctor
While an abnormal blood cell count is usually found when testing for another disorder or disease, it is wise to consult a physician if you experience frequent infections, especially those that don’t resolve in a reasonable amount of time. Other possible signs of a larger issue include general fatigue, headaches that don’t have an obvious cause, and general malaise.
Preventing High White Blood Cell Count
There are several things you can do to prevent your white blood cell count from becoming too high. Among these are quitting smoking, effectively managing stress, avoiding excessive exercise, and taking vitamin supplements, such as B12. If you habitually have a higher-than-normal number of white blood cells, it’s important to be regularly monitored by a physician, as chronic problems can lead to organ damage and auto-immune disease.
Preventing Low White Blood Cell Count
Some causes of a low white blood cell count are unavoidable, such as cancer treatment or diseases that attack the immune system. However, there are things that you can do to avoid getting infections while your immune system is low. Among these are frequent hand washing, avoiding undercooked meats and raw eggs, and using a soft toothbrush to avoid bleeding gums.