What Causes Enlarged Spleen?

Conditions list medically reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA

Splenomegaly is a condition that occurs when your spleen becomes enlarged. It is also commonly referred to as enlarged spleen or spleen enlargement. The spleen is a part of your lymphatic system. The spleen helps the immune system by storing white... Read More

Splenomegaly is a condition that occurs when your spleen becomes enlarged. It is also commonly referred to as enlarged spleen or spleen enlargement.

The spleen is a part of your lymphatic system. The spleen helps the immune system by storing white blood cells and helping in the creation of antibodies.

The spleen is found on the left side of your body, below your rib cage. It is responsible for:

  • filtering antibody-coated bacteria
  • reprocessing old red blood cells
  • recycling the iron in the hemoglobin

Your spleen is extremely important in your body’s fight against infection because it is the source of two types of white blood cells, B cells and T cells. White blood cells protect your body from bacteria and infections. The spleen is usually about the size of your fist, but when enlarged, it can become much bigger.

What should I look out for?

Some people with an enlarged spleen experience no symptoms, and the condition is only discovered during a routine physical exam. If you are very slim, it may be possible for you to feel your enlarged spleen through your skin.

A common symptom of an enlarged spleen is a feeling of pain or discomfort in the upper left side of abdomen, where the spleen is located.

You might also experience a feeling of fullness after only eating a small amount. This usually happens when the spleen becomes enlarged to the point that it presses on the stomach. If your spleen starts to press on other organs, it can start to affect the blood flow to the spleen. This could cause your spleen to not be able to filter your blood properly.

If your spleen becomes too big, it can start to remove too many red blood cells from your blood. Not having enough red blood cells can lead to a condition called anemia. If your spleen can’t create enough white blood cells as a result of its enlargement, you might also experience infections more often.

When to see a doctor

If you experience the symptoms of an enlarged spleen, it is important to make an appointment with your doctor. If you experience pain in the upper left side of your abdomen that is severe, or if the pain worsens when you breathe, see your doctor as soon as possible.

What can cause splenomegaly?

An enlarged spleen can be caused by a number of diseases and conditions. Infections, such as mononucleosis, are among the most common causes of splenomegaly. Problems with your liver, such as cirrhosis and cystic fibrosis, can also cause an enlarged spleen.

Another possible cause of splenomegaly is juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. This condition can cause inflammation of the lymph system. Because the spleen is part of the lymph system, this inflammation can cause the spleen to become enlarged.

Other potential causes of an enlarged spleen include:

  • malaria
  • Hodgkin’s disease
  • leukemia
  • heart failure
  • cirrhosis
  • tumors in the spleen or from other organs that have spread to the spleen
  • viral, bacterial, or parasitic infections
  • inflammatory diseases, such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis
  • sickle cell disease

Relieving your splenomegaly

To treat your enlarged spleen, your doctor will have to treat the underlying cause. If the cause of your enlarged spleen is an infection, your doctor may or may not prescribe you antibiotics depending on the organism causing the infection.

If the infection that causes your enlarged spleen is caused by bacteria, antibiotics may help. If a virus caused your infection, as is the case with mononucleosis, antibiotics would be of no help.

In serious cases, your doctor might suggest that you have your spleen removed, which is called a splenectomy. It’s entirely possible to live a normal, healthy life after having your spleen removed. Your risk of developing infections throughout your life may increase. But you can reduce your risk of getting infections by getting the appropriate vaccinations.

Going forward

If you have splenomegaly, finding ways to prevent damage to your enlarged spleen are important. When your spleen is enlarged, it has a greater risk of rupture. A ruptured spleen can lead to heavy internal bleeding that can be life-threatening.

Avoid playing contact sports, such as soccer or hockey, and make sure that you wear a seatbelt when you are in a car. If you get into an accident, your seatbelt will help protect your organs, including your spleen, and will reduce the chance of trauma to your organs.

With treatment of the underlying cause of your enlarged spleen, you can go on to live a normal, healthy life.

Medically reviewed by University of Illinois-Chicago, College of Medicine on October 24, 2016Written by Carmella Wint


17 possible conditions

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to diagnose. Please consult a healthcare professional if you have health concerns.