Blood cell disorders affect your red and white blood cells and smaller circulating cells called platelets. All three cell types form in the bone marrow, which is the soft tissue inside your bones. Red blood cells transport oxygen to your body’s organs and tissues. White blood cells help your body fight infections. Platelets help your blood to clot. Blood cell disorders impair the formation and function of one or more of these types of blood cells.
There are many types of blood cell disorders that can drastically affect your overall health. The following are among the most common:
Red Blood Cell Disorders
Anemia is one type of red blood cell disorder usually caused by a lack of the mineral iron in your blood. Your body needs iron to produce the protein hemoglobin, which helps your red blood cells carry oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body.
Sickle cell anemia (SCA) is a type of anemia that draws its name from the unusual sickle shape of the affected red blood cells. A normal red blood cell is shaped like a disc, but due to a genetic mutation, the red blood cells of patients with sickle cell anemia contain abnormal hemoglobin molecules and so are rigid and curved. The sickle shaped red blood cells cannot carry as much oxygen to your tissues as normal red blood cells can. They may also become stuck in your blood vessels, blocking blood flow to your organs.
SCA is an inherited disease that is passed down to children if both of their parents have the condition. It is most common among African Americans.
Blood platelets are the first responders in the case of a cut or other injury. They gather at the site of the injury, creating a temporary plug to stop blood loss. If you have a platelet disorder, such as von Willebrand disease, your blood does not contain enough platelets, contains too many platelets, or contains platelets that do not clot correctly.
Having too few platelets is quite dangerous because even a small injury can cause serious blood loss. If you have too many platelets in your blood, blood clots can form and block a major artery, causing a stroke or heart attack. Sometimes, deformed platelets cannot stick to other blood cells or the walls of your blood vessels and so cannot clot properly. This can also lead to a dangerous loss of blood.
Pediatric Blood Cell Disorders (White Blood Cell Disorders)
These disorders affect the white blood cells of children. They occur when the bone marrow produces too many or too few white blood cells. When there are not enough white blood cells, the body cannot fight off infections. Too many white blood cells (a high white blood cell count) can indicate the presence of leukemia, certain infections, or conditions such as measles or whooping cough. Rarely, a bone marrow disease or autoimmune condition (when your body attacks its own cells) can lead to the production of too many white blood cells.
Blood cell disorders may be caused by disease or they may be inherited from your parents (hereditary). For example, an iron deficiency due a lack of iron in the diet or problems with absorbing iron can result in your body not being able to produce enough red blood cells, while a genetic condition, such as polycythemia vera, can cause it to produce too many.
If you have an autoimmune disease, such as lupus, your immune system may destroy your own blood platelets. This will hamper your body’s ability to stop episodes of bleeding.
Low or compromised white blood cells are caused by infections that destroy or overwhelm them. Some health conditions destroy white blood cells faster than the bone marrow can produce them. Your body may also increase its production of white blood cells to fight a disease or infection.
You or your child may be at risk for red blood cell disorders if you have low blood iron levels. You may be at risk for white blood cell disorders if you have a serious infection or autoimmune disease. And you may be at risk for blood cell disorders in general if you have a family history of these disorders.
Symptoms will vary depending on the type of blood cell disorder. Common symptoms for each blood cell type are listed below.
Red Blood Cell Disorders
- shortness of breath
- trouble concentrating from lack of oxygenated blood in the brain
- muscle weakness
- fast heartbeat
White Blood Cell Disorders
- chronic infections
- unexplained weight loss
- malaise or the general feeling of being unwell
- cuts or sores that do not heal or are slow to heal
- blood that does not clot after an injury or cut
- skin that is easily bruised
- unexplained nosebleeds or bleeding from the gums
Your doctor may order several tests, including a complete blood count (CBC) to see how many of each type of blood cell you have. Your doctor may also order a bone marrow biopsy to see if there are any abnormal cells developing in your marrow. This will involve removing a small amount of bone marrow for testing.
Your treatment plan will be based on your condition, age, and overall health. Your physician may use a combination of treatments to help correct your blood cell disorder, such as:
For platelet disorders, medications such as Nplate (romiplostim) can be used to treat clotting problems. For white blood cell disorders, antibiotics can help fight infections. Anemias due to deficiencies may be treated with dietary supplements such as iron and Vitamin B9 (folate) or B12 (cobalamin).
Bone marrow transplants may be used to repair or replace damaged marrow. These involve transferring stem cells, usually from a donor, into your body to help your bone marrow begin producing normal blood cells. A blood transfusion is another option to help you replace lost or damaged blood cells. You will receive an infusion of healthy blood from a donor.
Both procedures require specific criteria in order to succeed. Bone marrow donors must match (or be as close as possible to) your genetic profile. Blood transfusions require a donor with a compatible blood type.