Lymphopenia is having a lower-than-normal level of lymphocytes in your blood. Lymphocytes are white blood cells that protect you from infection. Having too few of them can increase your chances of getting sick. You may or may not need treatment depending on your symptoms and what’s causing your lymphopenia.
Lymphopenia is a condition when there are too few white blood cells called lymphocytes in your blood. A lymphocyte is just one type of white blood cell. About 20% to 40% of your white blood cells are lymphocytes.
Lymphocytes can be broken down into three types:
Low lymphocytes — or lymphopenia — may make you more susceptible to infections and other conditions.
Lymphopenia is also called lymphocytopenia and lymphocytic leukopenia. Leukopenia means having a low white blood cell count. “Lymphocytic” leukopenia means you have a low number of lymphocytes in particular.
What’s considered a normal lymphocyte level differs for adults and children.
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Lymphopenia alone doesn’t cause symptoms. Instead, conditions associated with lymphopenia may cause symptoms, including:
With severe lymphopenia, you may experience frequent infections or infections that last a long time.
With mild lymphopenia, you may not experience any symptoms at all.
You may be born with a condition that causes lymphopenia, or you may get it over time. Depending on the cause, you may have lymphopenia that requires lifelong treatment (chronic). Or you may have lymphopenia that resolves with treatment or on its own without treatment (acute).
Lymphopenia has many causes. The most common causes are infections, medications and nutritional deficiencies.
Viruses, bacteria, parasites and fungi can all cause infections that lead to lymphopenia. Infectious diseases that can cause lymphopenia include:
You can get lymphopenia if you’re not getting enough protein in your diet (malnutrition) or enough vitamins or minerals like vitamin B12, folic acid or zinc in your diet. This is the most common cause of lymphopenia worldwide.
Conditions that you inherit from your biological parents can lead to lymphopenia, including:
Autoimmune diseases happen when your immune system attacks your body’s healthy cells, which may include lymphocytes. Conditions include:
Blood disorders and cancer can interfere with your body’s ability to make lymphocytes. Conditions include:
Cancer treatments and drugs that treat autoimmune diseases can lead to lymphopenia. Causes may include:
Excessive alcohol (such as beer, wine or liquor) can also lead to lymphopenia.
A healthcare provider will review your history and symptoms, ask about your lifestyle and perform tests to diagnose lymphopenia.
Your provider may perform various tests to check your blood cells and bone marrow.
Tests that check your blood and bone marrow can help your healthcare provider diagnose lymphopenia.
Mild cases of lymphopenia that don’t cause symptoms don’t require treatment. Often, levels eventually return to normal once your body recovers from an infection.
Otherwise, treatment requires addressing the underlying condition. Your healthcare provider can recommend treatments based on what’s causing your low levels.
If you were born with a condition that prevents your body from making enough lymphocytes, a hematopoietic stem cell transplant might be a potential cure. This procedure replaces damaged or defective blood-forming blood cells (called stem cells) with healthy stem cells. The stem cells eventually develop into fully mature blood cells, including lymphocytes.
Still, a stem cell transplant is a complex procedure with risks. Not everyone is eligible for this type of procedure. Your healthcare provider can tell you if a stem cell transplant is right for you.
You may need immunoglobulin (IG) shots if you have severe lymphopenia. This treatment can strengthen your immune system so it’s better able to fight infections. Your provider may recommend regular IG shots to prevent frequent infections.
You can’t prevent lymphopenia that results from a condition you’re born with. You can reduce your risk of acquiring lymphopenia. For example, take precautions to protect yourself from germs that can make you sick. Practice safer sex to reduce your risk of getting a sexually transmitted infection (STI), like HIV. Make sure you drink in moderation — no more than one can of beer, one glass of wine or one shot of liquor per day.
You can reduce your risk of an infection if you:
Ask your healthcare provider about extra precautions you may need to take to prevent infection.
Your outlook depends on what’s causing your low lymphocyte levels. Usually, your lymphocytes will return to normal once your body has recovered from an infection. If something more serious is causing your low levels, treatment may be a longer, more involved process.
See a healthcare provider if you have an infection. If you have a condition that makes you more susceptible to infections, ask your healthcare provider about the signs and symptoms that should alert you to seek medical care.
No. But cancers can cause lymphopenia if they interfere with your body’s ability to make lymphocytes. Some forms of cancer treatment can temporarily lower your lymphocyte levels.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Lymphopenia is having a lower-than-normal level of lymphocytes in your blood. Ask your healthcare provider if you should be concerned about your low lymphocytes. Often, lymphocytes return to normal once your body has recovered from an infection. But if you have a chronic condition, you may need ongoing care to ensure you have enough white blood cells to prevent infections. Your healthcare provider will let you know if your lymphopenia requires treatment.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 03/15/2023.
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