How can you tell if you have low blood cell counts?

Unless your blood cell counts are very low, you probably won't experience any signs or symptoms and you won't be able to tell that your blood counts are down. That's why your doctor may order frequent blood tests to follow your blood cell counts.

Ask your doctor whether your cancer treatment is likely to cause low blood cell counts and what signs and symptoms you should be looking for. If you notice any signs or symptoms of low blood cell counts, tell your doctor right away.

ConditionWhat to look for
Low white blood cell count Fever higher than 100.5 F (38 C)
Chills
Sweating
Low red blood cell count Fatigue
Chest pain
Dizziness
Shortness of breath
Low platelet count Bleeding
Easy bruising
Heavy menstrual bleeding

Source: National Cancer Institute, 2007

How are low blood cell counts treated?

If you have low blood cell counts, your treatment will depend on which counts are low and what's causing the low numbers. Common treatments include:

  • Blood transfusions. Transfusions help people with low levels of red blood cells and platelets. In a blood transfusion you're given either red blood cells or platelets from people who've donated blood. Though transfusions of white blood cells are possible, they're reserved for specific, rare situations because of the risk of many complications.
  • Medications. Your doctor may prescribe medications that stimulate the production of more blood cells. Medications have benefits and risks, so talk to your doctor about the possible side effects of drugs used to boost blood cell counts.
  • Stopping treatment. In severe cases you may need to delay your cancer treatment until your blood cell counts rise.

The type of treatment you receive will depend on your cancer treatment and your physical condition.

How can you cope with low blood cell counts?

Take steps to keep your body healthy when you have low blood cell counts. For example:

  • Eat a balanced diet. Your body needs all the vitamins and nutrients it can get to heal itself during and after your treatment. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. If treatment complications make eating difficult — for example, if you experience nausea and vomiting or mouth sores — experiment to find foods you can tolerate.
  • Avoid injury. Many everyday activities put you at risk of cuts and scrapes. A low platelet count makes even minor abrasions serious. A low white blood cell count can turn a small cut into a starting point for a serious infection. Use an electric shaver rather than a razor to avoid nicks. Ask someone else to cut up food in the kitchen. Be gentle when brushing your teeth and blowing your nose.
  • Avoid germs. It's impossible to avoid all germs, but avoid unnecessary exposure when you can. Wash your hands frequently or use a liquid hand sanitizer. Avoid people who are sick and stay away from crowds. Have someone else clean the litter box, bird cage or fish tank. Don't eat raw meat or eggs.
  • Rest. If you feel tired, stop and rest. Your body is working hard to fight the cancer cells and heal the healthy cells damaged by your treatment. Don't feel guilty about taking time for yourself and asking others to help you. Plan your most important activities for the time of day when you feel most energetic.

Talk to your health care team about other ways you can cope with low blood cell counts.

Sep. 17, 2011 See more In-depth