A blood cell disorder is a condition in which there’s a problem with your red blood cells, white blood cells, or the smaller, circulating cells called platelets, which are critical for clot formation. 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.
Symptoms will vary depending on the type of blood cell disorder. Common symptoms of red blood cell disorders are:
- shortness of breath
- trouble concentrating from lack of oxygenated blood in the brain
- muscle weakness
- a fast heartbeat
Common symptoms of pediatric white blood cell disorders are:
- chronic infections
- unexplained weight loss
- malaise, or a general feeling of being unwell
Common symptoms of platelet disorders are:
- cuts or sores that don’t heal or are slow to heal
- blood that doesn’t clot after an injury or cut
- skin that bruises easily
- unexplained nosebleeds or bleeding from the gums
There are many types of blood cell disorders that can drastically affect your overall health.
Red Blood Cell Disorders
Anemia is one type of red blood cell disorder. A lack of the mineral iron in your blood usually causes this disorder. 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 sickled 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 people with sickle cell anemia contain abnormal hemoglobin molecules and so are rigid and curved. The sickle-shaped red blood cells can’t 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 passes down to children if both parents have the condition. It’s most common among African-Americans.
Blood platelets are the first responders when you have 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 doesn’t have enough platelets, contains too many platelets, or contains platelets that don’t 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 can’t stick to other blood cells or the walls of your blood vessels and so can’t clot properly. This can also lead to a dangerous loss of blood.
Pediatric 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 aren’t enough white blood cells, the body can’t fight off infections. Too many white blood cells, known as “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, which occurs when your body attacks its own cells, can lead to the production of too many white blood cells.
Blood cell disorders may be the result of disease. They may also be hereditary, or inherited from parents. 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. 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 due to 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. A family history of blood cell disorders puts you at a higher risk of having one.
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 depends on the stage of your illness, your age, and your overall health status. Your doctor may use a combination of treatments to help correct your blood cell disorder.
For platelet disorders, medications such as Nplate (romiplostim) can treat clotting problems. For white blood cell disorders, antibiotics can help fight infections. Dietary supplements such as iron and vitamin B-9 or B-12 can treat anemia due to deficiencies. Vitamin B-9 is also called folate, and vitamin B-12 is also known as cobalamin.
Bone marrow transplants may repair or replace damaged marrow. These involve transferring stem cells, usually from a donor, to 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. During a blood transfusion, you receive an infusion of healthy blood from a donor.
Both procedures require specific criteria 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.
The variety of blood cell disorders means that your experience of living with one of these conditions may vary greatly from someone else. Early diagnosis and treatment are the best ways to ensure that you live a healthy and full life with a blood cell disorder.
Different side effects of treatments vary depending on the person. Research your options, and speak with your doctor to find the right treatment for you.
Finding a support group or counselor to help you deal with any emotional stress about having a blood cell disorder is also helpful.
You Asked, We Answered
- What is the likelihood of finding a bone marrow match? Are there any promising advancements in finding bone marrow matches?
Most people with blood cancer in the United States who need a bone marrow transplant can find an acceptable match through the National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP).
A recent study found that 66 to 97 percent of patients will have a matched and live donor who’s available on the registry, depending on race and ethnicity. People in ethnic groups that are hard to match can find a donation in banked stem cells drawn from donations of umbilical cord blood.- Steve Kim, M.D.