Elevated White Blood Cell (WBC) Count: Causes, Treatments and More

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Elevated White Blood Cell (WBC) Count: Causes, Treatments and More
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Doctors test for white blood cell (WBC) count to measure the number of white blood cells in your body. This blood test is usually done as part of a standard complete blood count (CBC) test. White blood cells are also called leukocytes and they are part of your immune system. They attack germs, bacteria, and microbes that can cause infections or inflammation. White blood cells can be divided into five main types: neutrophils, lymphocytes, monocytes, eosinophils, and basophils.

Usually, blood test results show elevated white blood cell count if you are fighting an infection or have an inflammatory condition. Pregnancy can also cause a high or slightly elevated white blood cell count. However, other factors like stress, smoking, or allergies can elevate your white blood cell count. Doctors also check for abnormal WBC levels if they suspect an autoimmune condition, blood disorder, or problem with your immune system.

There are not always obvious symptoms if your white blood cell count is outside the normal range. A high white blood cell count could be accompanied by symptoms of a viral infection or allergic reaction like fatigue, runny nose, coughing, or digestive upset. There are also some medical conditions that cause your white blood cell count to drop lower than normal.

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In this article, I will look at the various reasons that can cause a high or slightly elevated white blood cell count. In most cases, lowering white blood cell count involves treating the underlying cause. However, there are also some natural ways to help bring your white blood cell count within the normal range.

What is Normal WBC Range?

Even though white blood cells only make up 1% of your blood volume, they play a vital role in keeping your body’s defenses healthy. Your bone marrow constantly produces white blood cells in case germs, viruses, or bacteria threaten your health.

According to the journal, American Family Physician, the normal total white blood cell count (leukocytes) range for healthy infants and adults is as follows:1

  • Infant 2 weeks old: 5.0 to 20.0 x 109 per L
  • Adult: 4.5 to 11.0 x 109 per L
  • Pregnant woman: 5.8 to 13.2 x 109 per L

Of course, there may be slight variations depending on the lab carrying out the blood test.

The total number of white blood cells is comprised of 5 types of white blood cells. Researchers from the University of Rochester say that these are:2

  • Neutrophils. These WBCs destroy bacteria and fungi and are your first line of defense when there is an infection.
  • Lymphocytes. Defend against harmful viruses or bacteria by creating antibodies.
  • Monocytes. Kill bacteria invading your blood supply.
  • Eosinophils. Effective in destroying parasites and cancer cells.
  • Basophils. Secrete histamine and react to allergens in the body.

What is Considered High or Elevated White Blood Cell Count?

Dr. Hina Naushad, a hematopathologist from Creighton Medical Center, says that an elevated WBC count is when the total number of leukocytes (white blood cells) is more than 11.0 x 109 per L.

To help doctors diagnose correctly medical conditions that cause WBC levels to jump, they may also check for levels of the 5 major types of white blood cells. Abnormal levels of these white blood cells are results that are out of the following range:3

  • Neutrophils: 2.5 to 7.5 x 109 per L
  • Lymphocytes: 1.5 to 3.5 x 109 per L
  • Monocytes: 0.2 to 0.8 x 109 per L
  • Eosinophils: 0.04 to 0.4 x 109 per L
  • Basophils: 0.01 to 0.1 x 109 per L

Testing for these types of white blood cells is sometimes called a differential white blood test.

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High White Blood Cell Count – What Does it Mean?

A high white blood cell count is called leukocytosis and can mean that your body is dealing with extra stress. This can be in the form of an infection, inflammation, injury, allergic reaction, or emotional stress.

Some conditions associated with elevated WBC count in a lab test can include:

  • The common cold or flu caused by a viral infection
  • Bacterial infections caused by Strep or Staph strains of bacteria like cellulitis, strep throat, or bacterial pneumonia.
  • Asthma or allergies that cause an inflammatory response in your body.
  • Leukemia.
  • A side effect of certain corticosteroid medications.
  • Pregnancy or childbirth.

Symptoms of Elevated White Blood Cell Count

According to the American Association for Clinical Chemistry, symptoms and signs that a person has elevated WBC are usually associated with an infection. Therefore, you may show signs like:4

  • Body aches and pains
  • Headaches
  • Signs of inflammation around your joints
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • A cough that brings up yellow or green phlegm

Sometimes, you may have higher than normal or slightly elevated white blood cell count without any symptom. If this is the case, your doctor will usually arrange for a second WBC blood test to determine the reason.

Doctors may also test for signs of leukocytes in urine and stool to help diagnose digestive disorders or urinary tract infections.

Causes of Elevated WBC Count

Let’s look in more detail as to what it can mean if you have too many white blood cells.

Viral or bacterial infection

The most common cause of higher than normal white blood cells is because your body is fighting an infection. The presence of germs, bacteria, or viruses signal to your body to produce more WBCs to destroy the pathogens.

For example, the Scandinavian Journal of Infectious Diseases reports that higher than normal levels of lymphocytes are seen in most viral and bacterial respiratory infections.5

The Journal of Cytology also reported that white blood cell count, especially neutrophils, becomes elevated in fungal infections. For example, if a person shows signs of a candida infection, their WBC count will usually be above the normal range.6

Inflammatory conditions

Doctors may test for a high white blood cell count to help diagnose the severity of certain inflammatory conditions in the body.

For example, Dr. Neil Abramson in the journal American Family Physician reported that inflammation associated with burn wounds can cause leukocytosis. As the wound is healing, stored WBCs are released to control inflammation. This is also referred to as left shift WBC or leukocytosis with left shift.7 

Left shift WBC or leukocytosis with left shift means that there is a high number of young, immature white blood cells in your blood. This happen when the bone marrow is producing more white blood cells and releasing them into the blood before they are fully mature to fight the infection or the inflammation.

Checking for elevated white blood cell count can also help doctors diagnose the severity of coronary heart disease or a stroke.

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For example, the American Journal of Epidemiology reported that there is a link between WBC count and the outcome of cardiovascular diseases. This could be associated with a sedentary lifestyle, high cholesterol levels, or genetics. The researchers concluded that an elevated WBC count is a risk factor for mortality connected to stroke or coronary heart disease.8

Rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is another inflammatory condition that can cause the number of white blood cells to rise higher than normal.

Researchers from the Cleveland Clinic say that swelling and inflammation can cause an increased WBC count.9 Also, according to the Journal of Clinical Rheumatology, people with elevated leukocytes tend to have more active arthritis. Another factor that can elevate white blood cells is the side effect of some corticosteroids (used to reduce inflammation) that can also raise your WBC count.10

There are a number of ways to treat the symptoms of arthritis naturally. For example, foods rich in omega 3 fatty acids, as well as fruits and vegetables rich in antioxidants, are foods that help manage arthritis inflammation.

Allergy

An elevated high white blood cell count can mean that you have an allergic reaction to specific allergens. An allergy is an overactive immune response from your body to substances that are generally harmless.

Allergies can cause a runny nose, hives, sneezing, or swelling of body parts. According to Dr. Nayana Ambardekar on WebMD, allergies can raise eosinophil white blood cells. So, as part of allergy testing, your doctor may arrange for a differential white blood cell test.11

One way to reduce allergy symptoms is to use natural antihistamines to reduce swelling and a runny nose. Also, certain essential oils have anti-allergy properties that can help to clear sinuses, reduce inflammation, and soothe itchy skin.

Immune system disorder

In some cases, an immune disorder can cause a slightly elevated white blood cell count.

Of course, allergic reactions are classed as an immune system disorder. However, the Encyclopaedia Britannica says that other immune disorders that can affect WBC levels are acquired immune deficiencies, autoimmune disorders, mononucleosis, or DiGeorge syndrome.12

Emotional or physical stress

Emotional or physical stress can cause inflammatory responses in your body that can result in high WBC and high neutrophils.

A study published in the journal Industrial Health found a relationship between elevated white blood cell levels and stress at work. A high neutrophil count was also connected to high levels of cholesterol and fatigue. The overall result was an increase in low-grade inflammation.13

Other scientific studies have shown a connection between high leukocyte count and atherosclerosis – a buildup of plaque in the arteries. Elevated WBC count can increase a person’s risk of stroke and heart attack.14

Some ways to reduce stress and look after the health of your heart is to enjoy a healthy diet and get plenty of exercise.

Gastrointestinal problems

Certain problems with your digestive system are connected with inflammation and can be a reason for elevated WBC.

For example, a bacterial infection of your gastrointestinal tract may cause you to have too many white blood cells. Dr. Faten N. Aberra, a gastroenterologist from the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, says that a C. difficile bacterial infection can cause watery stool, abdominal cramping, and nausea. Blood tests for C. difficile infections usually show elevated WBCs.15

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Also, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) like Chron’s disease can cause leukocytes levels to rise.16

Smoking

If you smoke, you may find that complete blood count test results persistently show high readings for your white blood cell count.

According to the journal Preventive Medicine Reports, smoking is a well-documented cause of having too many white blood cells. In fact, smoking causes significant increases in lymphocytes, monocytes, eosinophils, neutrophils, and basophils. Stopping smoking usually results in lowering white blood cell count so that within one year they are back to normal.17

Pregnancy

The normal WBC range for pregnant women is significantly higher than for the general population.

Doctors say that blood volume increases by about 1.5 liters during pregnancy. This can affect red blood cells and white blood cells, especially neutrophils. During the third trimester, a white blood cell count of anything up to 13.2 x 109 per L would be considered within the normal range. This usually returns to normal within 4 weeks of delivery.1

Leukemia

Leukemia can result in an excessively high or abnormally low number of white blood cells. Doctors from the Cleveland Clinic say that blood test results may also show abnormalities in red blood cells or the presence of immature granulocytes.18

Other Causes of High White Blood Cell Count

There are some other, less common, reasons for having too many white blood cells in your serum.

Side effect of medication

High WBC can be a side effect of some medications. For example, lithium used to treat some psychological disorders can result in elevated white blood cells indices.19 Also, the American Journal of Medicine reports that certain corticosteroid medications can cause white blood cell count to rise higher than the normal range.20

Bone marrow disorder

Having significantly elevated white blood cell counts could indicate a bone marrow disorder. The journal American Family Physician says that bone marrow disorders can include acute leukemia and chronic leukemia. This can sometimes raise WBC count to over 100 x 109 per L.21

Polycythemia vera

Polycythemia vera (PV) is a genetic condition that affects the bone marrow and can result in too many red blood cells and too many white blood cells being produced.22

How to Lower White Blood Cell Count

Usually, having a high WBC count is nothing to worry about, and white blood cells return to their normal range when the infection has cleared. What can you do to help lower the number of white blood cells if they are slightly elevated?

Diagnose and treat the underlying cause

The most common reason for abnormally high levels of white blood cells is a viral or bacterial infection. Here are some natural ways to help recover faster from a respiratory infection:

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Reduce stress

Because psychological and emotional stress can cause WBC count to shoot up, it’s important to find ways to manage stress better.

For example, there are many essential oils that are great for stress relief. Bergamot essential oil, lemon oil, lavender oil, and wild orange can help to soothe frayed nerves and induce a feeling of calm. Also meditation, yoga and other stress management techniques can help to reduce stress levels.

Stop smoking

Stopping smoking is one of the best ways you can do to improve your health and reduce your risk of many diseases. Some of the benefits of kicking this habit are that your blood circulation improves, the health of your lungs and heart gets better, and you reduce your risk of stroke.

Please read this article for ways to help quit smoking today.

Omega-3 supplements to reduce inflammation

Fish oil or omega-3 supplements are one of the super foods that help reduce inflammation. Taking omega-3 supplements can help to reduce your total WBC count because they prevent a number of inflammatory diseases.

According to research in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, omega-3 fatty acids can help manage autoimmune and inflammatory diseases. For example, among the medical conditions that omega-3 fatty acids can help are:23

  • Coronary heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Ulcerative colitis
  • Early signs of aging
  • Psoriasis
  • Lupus
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • The physical effects of stress

When supplementing your diet with omega-3 fatty acids, it’s important to make sure that they contain DHA and EPA – long chain fatty acids that are mainly responsible for the health benefits.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C is an important antioxidant that is essential to keep your immune system working properly. A healthy immune system is able to fight infections more effectively and prevent the body from producing excessive numbers of white blood cells.

For example, the Oregon State University published studies into the effect of vitamin C on the immune system. Researchers found that the health benefits of vitamin C include:24

  • Reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease and inflammatory responses
  • Helping to shorten the length of time infections affect the body
  • Helping to increase the bioavailability of iron, thus keeping your blood healthy

Studies have also shown that vitamin C has a positive effect on the efficiency of white blood cells in fighting infection.25

Anti-inflammatory diet / Mediterranean diet to lower WBC count

You can also reduce inflammatory responses in your body and lower white blood cell count by switching to the Mediterranean diet.

According to the American Society of Hematology, the Mediterranean diet is rich in fish, whole grains, green leafy vegetables, and olive oil. Various studies have shown that people who regularly consume the Mediterranean diet have less risk of developing inflammatory diseases. In comparison to people who didn’t consume the Mediterranean diet, this diet helped to reduce white blood cell counts and other inflammatory markers.26

Read my other related articles:

Medical Sources

  1. Am Fam Physician.2015 Dec 1; 92(11): 1004-1011.
  2. URMC. What are white blood cells?
  3. Medscape. Leukocyte count (WBC).
  4. LabTestsOnline. White blood cell count (WBC).
  5. Scand J Infect Dis.1993; 25(4): 435-40.
  6. J Cytol. 2015 Apr-Jun; 32(2): 79–84.
  7. Am Fam Physician.2000 Nov 1; 62(9): 2053-2060.
  8. Am J Epidem. 2001 Oct; 154(8): 758-764.
  9. ClevelandClinic. Arthritis & blood tests.
  10. J Clin Rheumatol.1996 Aug;2(4):197-202.
  11. WebMD. Blood testing for allergies.
  12. Britannica. Immune system disorder.
  13. Ind Health. 2014 Nov; 52(6): 531–534.
  14. CarringtonEDU. Link between mental stress and physical health.
  15. Medscape. Clostridium difficile colitis workup.
  16. Cedars-Sinai. Crohn’s disease.
  17. Prev Med Rep. 2016 Dec; 4: 417–422.
  18. ClevelandClinic. Leukemia. Cancer institute
  19. Handbook of Lithium Therapy. pp 338-344
  20. Am J Med.1981 Nov;71(5):773-8.
  21. Am Fam Physician.2000 Nov 1;62(9):2053-2060.
  22. eMedicineHealth. Polycythemia.
  23. J Am Col Nutr. 2002; 21(6): 495-505.
  24. OregonStateEDU. Vitamin C.
  25. Nutrients. 2017 Nov; 9(11): 1211.
  26. Hematology. Study further illuminates heart-healthy benefits of Mediterranean diet.
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