Low Lymphocyte Count (Lymphocytopenia) – What Does It Mean?

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Low Lymphocyte Count (Lymphocytopenia) - What Does It Mean?

Low lymphocyte count (Lymphocytopenia) could indicate that you are at greater risk of developing infections because your lymphocytes are low. Lymphocytes are a type of white blood cell and they are essential to kill off bacteria and viruses and prevent infections from getting worse. A weakened immune system is often caused by a low number of lymphocytes and other types of white blood cells.


There are 3 types of Lymphocytes in your blood: B lymphocytes (B-cells), T lymphocytes (T-cells), and natural killer cells (NK cells). Together they help to keep you healthy and free of infection. The normal lymphocyte count range is between 1000 and 4800 per microliter of blood and it will take up about 20% to 40% of your total white blood cell count.26

A low level of lymphocytes in the blood can be caused by various factors. For example, nutrient deficiencies, stress, and fasting can all cause your lymphocyte count to drop. If blood tests show a significant drop in the number of lymphocytes then doctors will check for certain diseases like viral infections, autoimmune and inflammatory conditions, or certain cancers.

In many cases, enjoying a healthy diet with plenty of protein, vitamins, and minerals, getting enough rest, and addressing any nutrient deficiencies can help keep your lymphocyte levels normal. However, if doctors suspect a more serious cause of decreased levels of lymphocytes, you will have to treat the underlying medical conditions to get your lymphocyte levels back to normal.

Lymphocytes and What They Do

Lymphocytes are a type of white blood cells and they play an important role in your immune system and are necessary to destroy viruses and bacteria. According to information published by PubMed Health, the three types of lymphocytes – B-cells, T-cells, and NK cells (natural killer cells) destroy toxins, bacteria, and viruses. The T cells destroy the body’s own cells that have themselves been taken over by viruses or become cancerous.1

What is Normal Lymphocytes Range?

In order to check for low lymphocytes in a blood test, doctors will perform a differential blood test to count the number of lymphocytes. According to PubMed Health, the normal lymphocyte range in a blood test for adults is between 1000 and 4800/μL (or microliters). In children under 2 years old, the range will be significantly higher.2

If your lymphocyte count is less than 1000/μL then you have lymphocytopenia (low lymphocyte count). Expert in hematology, Dr. Mary Territo says that lymphocytopenia can only be found by using differential blood test results that count the number of T-cells and B-cells. In some cases, total white blood count can seem normal even when there is a low lymphocyte count.3

What does Low Lymphocytes in Blood Test Mean?

Each type of lymphocyte plays its own role in keeping your immune system strong and your body healthy. Dr. Mary Territo says that having too few lymphocyte B-cells means a decrease in the number of antibodies the body produces. This can put you at more risk of developing infections.

A decrease in the number of lymphocyte T-cells and natural killer (NK) cells will mean that it is harder to control certain viral, fungal, and parasitic infections. NK cells also have the ability to identify and kill cancer cells without having to learn that they are abnormal.4

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Therefore, having an absolute low lymphocyte count means that your immune system is weakened and can be compromised more easily by infections or the growth of abnormal cells. This condition is called lymphopenia or lymphocytopenia.

Low Lymphocyte Count Symptoms

Sometimes you can have an absolute low lymphocyte count without showing any visible symptoms. This can be true in cases of acute lymphocytopenia where the underlying condition like stress or fatigue is usually temporary and easily resolved.

According to Dr. Mary Terrrio, some conditions caused by lymphocytopenia can result in symptoms like a constant runny nose with a fever, swollen lymph nodes, or painful joints because of rheumatoid arthritis. You may also find that you suffer from infections frequently or it’s more difficult to shake off infections because of a weakened immune system caused by low lymphocytes.5

Causes of Low Lymphocyte Count

There are a number of reasons for low lymphocyte levels in a blood test and these can be divided into acquired cases and inherited cases.

Acquired lymphocytopenia is when an infection, disease, or autoimmune condition develops and affects your lymphocyte count.

Inherited lymphocytopenia is present at birth and occurs rarely in the population.

According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, one of the simplest reasons why a person has low levels of lymphocytes in the blood is because the body doesn’t make enough white blood cells. Or, it could be that lymphocytes are destroyed quickly and therefore proper levels of lymphocytes can’t develop in the blood.6

According to Pub Med Health, low lymphocyte count can also happen when the lymphocytes get trapped in the spleen (possibly due to spleen disease) or the lymph nodes. Lymphocytes normally pass through these organs into the blood.27

Here are some common causes of low lymphocyte count.

Viral and bacterial infections cause low lymphocyte count

Low lymphocytes can mean that your body is fighting off an infection. During the time of the infection and for some time later, blood tests may show lower than normal levels of lymphocytes.

Pneumonia can cause a drop in lymphocytes. The journal BMJ reported that bacterial pneumonia can be to blame for an absolute low lymphocyte count. This can also result in fatigue and associated symptoms of pneumonia.7

Mononucleosis is a viral infection that will cause a drop in your lymphocyte count. During the course of the infection, PubMed Health says that a person will usually have swollen lymph glands, a sore throat, and body aches.8 However, in some cases, the American Journal of Clinical Pathology says that mononucleosis can cause excessively high levels of lymphocytes called lymphocytosis.9

Tuberculosis is a bacterial infection that can affect the lungs and can cause severe lymphopenia. The Turkish Journal of Pediatrics reported that a low lymphocyte count because of fighting the bacterial disease can also further weaken the immune system.10

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Stress

It is known that stress can weaken the immune system and cause you to get more infections. In fact, according to some reports, stress can affect your body so much that it can be to blame for around 60% of all diseases. The journal International Immunopharmacology reported that mild chronic stress can cause the body to alter the number of B-cells and T-cells it produces.11

Some other studies point to the fact that acute stressful events in life can also have the opposite reaction. Stress can also cause lymphocytosis which is an abnormally high level of white blood cells.12

Fasting

One reason your blood test could show up that you have low lymphocytes is if you have been fasting or been on an extreme diet. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition says that an inadequate diet or undernutrition can cause T and B lymphocyte cell levels to drop in the body. This, in turn, can affect the immune system and means that undernourished people are at more risk of infection.13

Zinc deficiency

A low lymphocyte count could mean that you have a zinc deficiency. Zinc is an important mineral that is needed for a healthy immune system. It has been noted in various studies that zinc deficiency is common in people who have symptoms of lymphopenia.14

Aplastic anemia

A rare type of anemia can cause a deficiency in white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets. Researchers from Johns Hopkins University found that people with suspected aplastic anemia also showed signs of mild lymphopenia.15

Autoimmune disorders

Some autoimmune disorders can affect your T-cells and B-cells causing a drop in lymphocyte count. According to the journal Arthritis and Rheumatism, around three-quarters of people who have lupus also have lymphopenia. In some cases, blood tests show up a severely low lymphocyte count.16

AIDS

One of the most common reasons for severe, chronic low levels of lymphocytes is AIDS. According to Emeritus Professor of Medicine Dr. Mary Territo, AIDS destroys T-cells and can also inhibit production of new lymphocytes. The HIV virus also causes lymphocytes to get trapped in the lymph nodes and make a person more prone to developing lung infections.3

Certain cancers

Cancer can also affect lymphocyte count and cause lymphocytopenia. This can be due to the cancer itself or because of chemotherapy or radiation treatment to destroy cancer cells. A chronic decrease in white blood cell count can be caused by leukemia or Hodgkin lymphoma.3

The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society of Canada reports that Hodgkin lymphoma develops in the lymph nodes and can also affect bone marrow. One of the ways non-Hodgkin lymphoma starts is that the lymphocytes grow out of control and don’t allow room for other types of normal white blood cells. As the abnormal cells build up in the lymph nodes, these can become swollen. However, you will also have other symptoms like unexplained fever, weight loss for no reason, and extreme tiredness.17

Other serious conditions that cause lymphocyte levels to drop

According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, there are other inherited causes of low lymphocyte count that are relatively rare. Some of these causes of lymphocytopenia are DiGeorge syndrome, Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome, and ataxia-telangiectasia.6

How to Treat Low Lymphocytes

To treat low levels of lymphocytes that show up in a blood test, doctors will treat the underlying disorder or infection. This may mean using drugs to kill off serious viral or bacterial infections or treating cancer.

At the same time, doctors will monitor your red blood cell and white blood cell levels to check how any treatments are working.

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Natural Ways to Increase Lymphocytes

In many cases, you can prevent acute cases of lymphocytopenia by looking after your health and enjoying a well-balanced diet. Here are some ways to keep your blood healthy and give your immune system a boost to improve your lymphocyte count.

Consume enough protein

Making sure that your diet contains enough protein will help to prevent low lymphocytes. Protein is necessary for healthy blood, bones, muscles, skin, and cartilage and not getting enough has been linked to low lymphocyte count.

The journal Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine reported that people on diets to lose weight often have a lymphocyte count of less than 1500/μL. It was found that diets that restrict protein can decrease lymphocytes in people, and protein malnutrition was often seen as well.

The best sources of protein are seafood, poultry, beef, and eggs. There are also many great protein options for vegetarians to make sure and get enough protein in their diet.

Green tea

Extracts from green tea can help to boost levels of lymphocytes and give your immune system a needed boost.

Clinical trials into green tea extracts have found that they may have a use in helping to treat lymphopenia in people with leukemia. The journal Clinical Cancer Research published studies into using green tea and turmeric for lymphocytic leukemia. It has been shown that green tea extracts can help to kill off abnormal B-cells and compliment chemotherapy treatment.18

For more information on the many health benefits of green tea, please read my article on how to use green tea for great health.

Turmeric

Turmeric is an amazing herb with many medicinal properties. Turmeric is known to reduce inflammation in joints, help keep skin healthy, and boost the immune system.

Research into turmeric has shown that it can help to improve levels of lymphocytes in the body. For example, research published in the journal Cell Division showed that curcumin (the main component of turmeric) can help to optimize the production of T-cells and also regulate B-cells. The study reported that these findings could have positive implications for the treatment of some cancers and viral infections.19

Vitamin A and D

Having enough vitamins A and D in your diet is essential to help keep lymphocytes at healthy levels in your body. Vitamins A and D both help keep your immunity strong and help fight off various infections and diseases.

The journal Nature Reviews Immunology reported that both vitamin A and vitamin D help to produce lymphocyte T-cells and boost the production of important antibodies. According to the research, vitamins A and D can have a powerful effect on the immune system.20

To find out how to prevent a vitamin D deficiency naturally, please read my article on the problems caused by a lack of vitamin D.

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Vitamin B6 to prevent low lymphocyte count

B-group vitamins are important to keep your blood and immune system healthy. The National Institute of Health says that fruits, vegetables, and grains are good sources of vitamin B6. Vitamin B6 is connected with your body’s immune function and producing enough lymphocytes in the body.21

According to the Journal of Nutrition, improving levels of vitamin B6 in your diet has a direct effect on boosting lymphocyte levels.22

Get enough zinc

Zinc is needed by your immune system to keep it functioning properly and your hair, skin, and nails in good condition. Zinc deficiency has also been linked with one of the reasons for hair loss, suffering from frequent headaches, and an upset digestive system.

According to MedlinePlus, recent studies have shown that taking zinc supplements can boost your immune system.23 The National Institutes of Health reports that zinc is needed by the body to activate lymphocyte T-cells and low levels of zinc are connected with increased tendency to develop pneumonia.24

One rich source of zinc is pumpkin seeds and keeping your immune system healthy is just one of the reasons to eat pumpkin seeds every day.

Get enough sleep

To keep your immune system strong and prevent a drop in lymphocyte levels, it’s important to get enough sleep. According to doctors from WebMD, lack of sleep is connected with catching colds and the flu. It has been found that the proper amount of sleep helps to replenish our T cells and keeps white blood cells at healthy levels in the body.25

According to Dr. Diwakar Balachandran from the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, all of us need at least 7 hours of sleep a night. This greatly reduces the risk of heart disease, inflammatory conditions, and fighting viruses.26

To help improve sleep patterns and get a good night’s sleep, please read my article on this natural way to improve sleep disorders.

What Happens if Lymphocyte Count is Too High?

If your lymphocyte count is excessively higher than normal levels, then you could have a condition called lymphocytosis. Doctors from the Mayo Clinic say that lymphocytosis is usually a temporary and harmless condition that happens after an illness.

In some cases, serious conditions like chronic infections or cancer can be a cause of lymphocytosis. Your doctor will check your blood work to monitor levels of white blood cells to help diagnose the reason.

When to See a Doctor

Usually, a complete blood count test is the first time a person finds out that they have a low lymphocyte count. If doctors suspect an infection or other cause of low lymphocytes, then they will check for other symptoms.

However, there are some signs of lymphocytopenia that may indicate a serious health condition. According to Dr. Mary Territo, some of these are:

  • Enlarged lymph nodes in your armpit, neck, or top of your neck
  • A chronic cough or a runny nose that could indicate a respiratory viral infection
  • Swollen joints and a rash
  • Small tonsils
  • Suffering from recurring infections

Read these related articles:

Article Sources

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  4. MerckManuals. Overview of the immune system.
  5. MerckManuals. Lymphocytopenia.
  6. NIH. Lymphocytopenia.
  7. BMJ. 2014;348:g1721
  8. NLM. Mononucleosis.
  9. Am J Clin Pathol. 1990;93(6):776.
  10. Turk J Pediatr.2000 Jan-Mar;42(1):65-7.
  11. Int Immunopharmacol.2002 Mar;2(4):487-97.
  12. Am J Clin Pathol.2002 May;117(5):819-25.
  13. Am J Clin Nutr. November 2001 vol. 74 no. 5 670-6781.
  14. ScienceDirect. Lymphocytopenia.
  15. JHU. Immune system in 40 aplastic anemia patients.
  16. Arth Rheum. 2005 Dec;21(3):295-305.
  17. LLSCanada. Hodgkin lymphoma.
  18. Clin Cancer Res. 2009 Feb 15; 15(4): 1123–1125.
  19. Cell Div. 2015; 10: 6.
  20. Nat Rev Immunol. 2008 Sep; 8(9): 685–698.
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  22. J Nutr.2002 Nov;132(11):3308-13.
  23. MedlinePlus. Zinc in the diet.
  24. NIH. Zinc.
  25. WebMD. How sleep loss affects immunity.
  26. Natural killer cells: In health and disease.
  27. Pub Med Health
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2 Responses to Low Lymphocyte Count (Lymphocytopenia) – What Does It Mean?

  1. joey says:

    Hi I have had lw lymphocyte Count ever since I have received. A copy of my bloods it sits between .7 and .8. Every doctor just says that’s ok but if I google it’s not can you advise

    • Jenny Hills, Medical Writer and Researcher says:

      Hi Joey, unfortunately I’m unable to give specific advice as I’m not a doctor. I encourage you to ask the doctors more questions about your low lymphocyte count to get more information rather than accepting their OK without really understanding what it means.

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