What is the spleen?
Your spleen is a small organ that sits inside your left rib cage, just above your stomach. In adults, the spleen is about the size of an avocado. The spleen is part of your lymphatic system (which is part of your immune system). It does several important jobs to keep your body healthy.
Many different conditions, diseases, disorders and injuries affect how your spleen works. Providers usually treat the condition or illness that’s causing problems with the spleen. If necessary, healthcare providers can remove your spleen during a procedure called a splenectomy.
What does the spleen do?
- Stores blood.
- Filters blood by removing cellular waste and getting rid of old or damaged blood cells.
- Makes white blood cells and antibodies that help you fight infection.
- Maintains the levels of fluid in your body.
- Produces antibodies that protect you against infection.
What are the parts of the spleen?
There are two parts of the spleen. They each do different jobs. The types of tissue in the spleen are:
- White pulp: As part of the immune system, the white pulp produces white blood cells. These blood cells make antibodies. Antibodies fight infection.
- Red pulp: The red pulp acts like a filter. It removes waste from the blood and gets rid of old or damaged blood cells. Red pulp also destroys bacteria and viruses.
Conditions and Disorders
What conditions and disorders affect this system?
Many disorders, conditions, injuries and diseases can cause problems in the spleen. These problems include:
Enlarged spleen (splenomegaly): Several conditions can cause the spleen to swell and get too big. An enlarged spleen can cause pain and an uncomfortable feeling of fullness, even if you haven’t eaten much. Splenomegaly is a dangerous condition because the spleen can rupture (tear) or bleed. The spleen can become enlarged from:
- Blood cancers, such as leukemia and Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and cancer in other parts of the body that metastasize (spread) to the spleen.
- Blood clots in the spleen or the liver.
- Certain types of anemia, including hemolytic anemia.
- Cystic fibrosis (CF).
- Infections, including mononucleosis (mono), syphilis, malaria and endocarditis (infection of the heart’s lining).
- Liver problems, including cirrhosis.
- Inherited metabolic disorders, such as Gaucher disease.
- Inflammatory diseases, including sarcoidosis.
- Protein disorders like amyloidosis.
Functional asplenia: This condition happens when your spleen doesn’t work as it should. It may overreact (hypersplenism) and destroy healthy red blood cells. Destroying too many blood cells can increase the risk of infection and lead to bruising and bleeding. Functional asplenia can result from:
Damaged or ruptured spleen: Your spleen can rupture (tear) from injuries and trauma. Car accidents and blows to the abdomen (belly) are common causes of spleen damage. This life-threatening injury can cause severe internal bleeding.
Symptoms of a ruptured spleen include:
How can I keep my spleen healthy?
To keep your spleen, lymphatic system and immune system working properly, you should drink plenty of water, exercise regularly and maintain a healthy weight. Eat a balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables. By staying healthy, you’ll help your immune system protect you from infections and illness.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can you live without a spleen?
Although the spleen does many important jobs in the body, it is possible to live without one. Providers call this condition asplenia or living without a spleen.
Rarely, some people are born without a spleen. Sometimes, healthcare providers perform surgery to remove the spleen (splenectomy) because it’s damaged or diseased. Without the spleen, the liver takes over many of the spleen’s duties.
Splenectomy is also a treatment for different types of thrombocytopenia, including immune thrombocytopenia (ITP). These disorders cause low platelet levels in the body. Platelets are blood cells that help your blood clot.
What are the complications of a damaged or missing spleen?
People who live without a spleen have a higher risk of infection. If the spleen is missing or damaged, the body has a harder time protecting itself from bacteria and viruses. People who have other conditions that affect the immune system (such as cancer or HIV) are at a higher risk of infection.
If you’re living without a spleen or your spleen doesn’t work like it should, talk to your provider. You should stay up-to-date on vaccinations to help protect you from getting sick. Your provider may recommend taking daily antibiotics to prevent a bacterial infection. This may be important if you also have another condition that affects your immune system.
When should I call my doctor?
Call your provider if you have any symptoms of an enlarged or ruptured spleen, including:
- Early satiety (a feeling of fullness after only eating a little bit).
- Unexplained bruising or bleeding.
- Pain under the left rib cage or tenderness when you touch the area.
How do I know if I’m at risk for spleen problems?
You have a higher risk of spleen problems if you have certain conditions. These include some blood cancers, Gaucher disease or cystic fibrosis. People with a rare condition called hereditary spherocytosis are at a higher risk of severe anemia and may need to have the spleen removed. Talk to your provider if you have a family history of these conditions.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Your spleen is a small but important organ. It works hard to fight infection, remove old or damaged blood cells and keep fluids moving through your body. Many disorders, infections, injuries and diseases can cause problems in the spleen. Talk to your provider right away if you have pain in your rib cage on the left side. This could be a sign of a ruptured spleen, which is a life-threatening condition.
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy