What is myelosuppression?

Myelosuppression — also referred to as bone marrow suppression — is a decrease in bone marrow activity resulting in reduced production of blood cells.

This condition is a common side effect of chemotherapy. It can range from mild to severe. Severe myelosuppression, called myeloablation, can be fatal.

The body’s bone marrow produces three types of cells: white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets. Myelosuppression can decrease some or all of these.

A decrease in all three types of blood cells is referred to as pancytopenia. This condition is life-threatening. It can cause an oxygen shortage and other immune issues.

Symptoms of myelosuppression depend on the type of blood cell affected and the severity of your condition. In more common cases of myelosuppression, you may experience:

If you develop anemia from low red blood cell production, you may experience:

If your white blood cell count decreases, you may experience symptoms of infection including:

If you develop thrombocytopenia from a decrease in platelet count, you may experience symptoms including:

Myelosuppression is a common side effect of chemotherapy. While this procedure is meant to destroy cancer cells, it can also affect your bone marrow and destroy your healthy blood cells.

Other causes of myelosuppression include:

Treating myelosuppression depends largely on the cause.

If you’re in chemotherapy, your blood cell counts will begin to decrease between 7 to 10 days after starting treatment. In mild cases of myelosuppression, treatment is not necessary. Blood count production will return to normal in a matter of weeks.

If your myelosuppression causes harmful side effects and affects your quality of life, chemotherapy may be stalled or stopped altogether to increase blood cell production.

If you begin to experience myelosuppression from bone marrow failure, doctors may recommend a transplant or transfusion to replenish blood cells. An alternative to transfusions is growth factor injections. These injections are natural chemicals that help boost bone marrow performance. They can be targeted to increase specific blood cell production.

If left untreated, or in more severe cases, myelosuppression can be fatal. Before deciding on a chemotherapy treatment, be sure to discuss the risks of myelosuppression with your doctor.

If you begin to experience harmful side effects from myelosuppression as a result of your cancer treatment, seek medical attention.