A leukemoid reaction is a very large short-term increase in your white blood cell count that can be mistaken for leukemia. Some of the potential causes include:
- solid cancers
- drug side effects
Leukemia is a group of cancers that develop in cells that produce blood cells in your bone marrow. People with leukemia often have extremely elevated white blood cell counts.
Having a leukemoid reaction doesn’t mean you have cancer, but it can be a sign of a potentially serious medical condition that needs treatment.
Read on to learn more about leukemoid reactions, including what they are and what causes them.
A leukemoid reaction is defined as a white blood cell count above
For reference, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society lists normal white blood count ranges as:
|Demographic||White blood cells per microliter (µL)|
Bloodwork of a person with a leukemoid reaction usually shows an increase in
Neutrophils are the
Granulocytes are released during
What’s the difference between a leukemoid reaction and leukemia?
A leukemoid reaction is an elevated white blood cell count caused by an underlying condition that isn’t a blood cancer. Leukemia is a group of blood cancers that form in the cells that create blood cells.
A blood smear can help doctors or healthcare professionals understand which condition you have. During this test, your blood cells are examined microscopically to see how many white blood cells you have and whether they look abnormal.
People with a type of leukemia called chronic myeloid leukemia often show an increase in abnormal granulocytes, whereas a leukemoid reaction is more likely to be characterized by an increase in mature neutrophils.
Doctors can further classify a leukemoid reaction based on the elevated type of white blood cells.
- Granulocytic reaction: A granulocytic reaction is the most common type. It’s usually characterized by an increase in the number of neutrophils. It can be a sign of infection, some cancers, and other conditions.
- Lymphocytic reaction: A lymphocytic reaction is characterized by an increase in a group of white blood cells called lymphocytes. A lymphocytic reaction is often a sign of an
immune reaction against cancer cells.
- Monocytic reaction: A monocytic reaction is an increase in white blood cells called monocytes. These cells multiply in response to
infection or injury.
A leukemoid reaction is caused by an underlying condition. Symptoms vary depending on which underlying condition you have. Here’s a general look at how symptoms of some common causes compare to general symptoms of leukemia.
|fever or chills||fever or chills||specific organ symptoms||fever|
|fatigue||fatigue||fatigue||nausea or vomiting|
|weakness||cough||skin changes||dry mouth|
|frequent infections||sore throat||change in bowel habits||abdominal pain|
|unintentional weight loss||diarrhea or vomiting||unintentional weight loss||unintentional weight loss|
|easy bleeding or bruising||abdominal pain||poor wound healing||easy bleeding or bruising|
|swollen lymph nodes||shortness of breath||lump under skin||jaundice|
A leukemoid reaction can be because of a variety of conditions that cause inflammation or stress in your body. Conditions that have been linked to leukemoid reactions include:
- ethylene glycol poisoning
- solid cancers
- infections such as:
- drugs such as corticosteroids
- severe bleeding
In a 2020
- 56% were caused by infection
- 16% were caused by other solid cancers
- 28% were caused by other conditions
People with Down syndrome frequently have elevated white blood cell counts within the first few months of life that usually resolve themselves.
Can COVID-19 cause a leukemoid reaction?
COVID-19 can affect many parts of your body, including causing changes in your white blood cell count.
Another 2021 case study reported a 64-year-old woman with severe COVID-19 diagnosed with a leukemoid reaction. She died 13 days after hospital admission.
A leukemoid reaction is diagnosed when you have a white blood cell count above
Doctors can usually easily differentiate a leukemoid reaction from leukemia by performing a peripheral blood smear. A peripheral blood smear is a test where doctors look at your blood microscopically.
A doctor may run a variety of other tests to rule out other conditions or find the underlying cause. Tests may include:
- other blood or urine tests
- physical exam
- tissue biopsies
- genetic testing
A leukemoid reaction is treated by targeting the underlying condition that’s causing it. For example, a bacterial infection, such as tuberculosis, is treated with antibiotics.
Underlying cancer may be treated with therapies such as:
Alcohol hepatitis may be treated with:
- ceasing alcohol consumption
- vitamin and nutrient supplements
- liver transplant
The outlook for someone with a leukemoid reaction depends on the underlying cause. Blood cells usually return to normal levels when the underlying condition is treated.
A highly elevated blood cell count may be a sign that an infection is advanced. In the 2020
A leukemoid reaction is a highly elevated white blood cell count caused by an underlying disease that isn’t a blood cancer. Many different conditions can cause a leukemoid reaction such as infections, alcohol hepatitis, and other cancers.
A doctor can help you figure out why your white blood cell count is elevated by running blood and other tests. If the underlying cause is curable, your blood cell count will likely return to normal once it’s treated.