What are white blood cells?

Your blood is made up of red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets, and plasma.

Your white blood cells make up only 1% of your blood, but their effect is huge. 

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White blood cells are also called leukocytes. They protect you from sickness and disease. 

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Think of white blood cells as your immune cells. In a sense, they are always at war. They flow through your bloodstream to fight off viruses, bacteria, and other foreign invaders that threaten your health. 

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When your body is in crisis and a particular area is under attack, white blood cells rush in to destroy the harmful substance and help prevent disease.

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White blood cells are made in the bone marrow. They get stored in your blood and lymph tissues. Because some white blood cells called neutrophils have a lifespan of less than a day, your bone marrow is always making them.

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Types of white blood cells

Among your white blood cells are:

Monocytes -They have a longer lifespan than many white blood cells and help break down bacteria.

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Lymphocytes – They make antibodies to fight off bacteria, viruses, and other potentially harmful invaders.

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Neutrophils – They kill and digest bacteria and fungi. They are the largest type of white blood cell and your first line of defense when an infection occurs.

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Basophils – These tiny cells sound the alarm when infectious agents invade your blood. They secrete chemicals such as histamine, a marker of allergic disease, that help control the body’s immune response.

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Eosinophils – They attack and kill parasites and cancer cells, and help with allergic reactions.

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Problems affecting white blood cells

Your white blood cell count can be low for a number of reasons. This includes when something is destroying cells faster than the body can replenish them. Or when the bone marrow stops making enough white blood cells to keep you healthy. 

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When your white blood cell count is low, you are at a much higher risk for any disease or infection, which can turn into a serious health threat.

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Your healthcare provider may do blood tests to see if your white blood cell count is normal. If your count is too low or too high, you may have a white blood cell disorder.

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Several diseases and conditions can affect white blood cell levels:

Weak immune system – It is often caused by diseases such as HIV/AIDS or by cancer treatments. Cancer treatments such as chemotherapy or radiation therapy can destroy white blood cells and leave you at risk of infection.

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Infection – A higher than normal white blood cell count usually means you have some kind of infection. White blood cells multiply to destroy bacteria or viruses.

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Myelodysplastic syndrome – This condition causes abnormal production of blood cells. This includes the white blood cells in the bone marrow.

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Blood cancer – Cancers, including leukemia and lymphoma, can cause the uncontrolled growth of abnormal types of blood cells in the bone marrow. This greatly increases the risk of infection or severe bleeding.

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Myeloproliferative disorders – This disorder refers to a variety of conditions that trigger the excessive production of immature blood cells. 

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This can result in an unhealthy balance of all types of blood cells in the bone marrow and too many or too few white blood cells in the blood.

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Medicines – Some medicines can increase or decrease the body’s white blood cell count.

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Conditions such as extreme physical stress due to injury or emotional stress can also trigger high white blood cell levels. So can bloating, childbirth or the end of pregnancy, smoking, or excessive exercise.

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