Thrombocytopenia

Also called: low platelet count

What is thrombocytopenia?

The body contains three types of blood cells:

  • Red blood cells, which carry oxygen to the other parts of the body
  • White blood cells, which fight infection
  • Platelets (thrombocytes), which clump together at the site of an injury to prevent blood loss, a process known as clotting

Platelets have about a 10-day lifespan, so your body is always producing new ones.

A below-normal platelet count is called thrombocytopenia. It is usually caused by an underlying disorder. Thrombocytopenia can occur for two reasons:

  • The bone marrow (where all blood cells are produced) does not make enough platelets. This can be caused by bone marrow failure syndromes or leukemia. Certain drugs, like chemotherapy medicines, can also keep the bone marrow from making enough platelets.
  • Platelets are broken down more rapidly than usual in the bloodstream or spleen. This can be caused by conditions such as a swollen spleen (hypersplenism), immune thrombocytopenia (ITP), thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura (TTP), certain autoimmune disorders, or a bacterial infection in the blood. Being pregnant can also cause mild thrombocytopenia.

Thrombocytopenia can be severe and require urgent treatment for bleeding, or it can be minor with few problems.

How common is thrombocytopenia?

Because of its many possible causes, thrombocytopenia is a fairly common condition. However, no numbers are available to track exactly how often it occurs.

What are the signs and symptoms of thrombocytopenia?

The signs and symptoms of thrombocytopenia will depend on its severity, but they usually include the following:

  • Bruising
  • Heavy or continued bleeding from cuts or other wounds
  • Bleeding from the nose or gums
  • Heavy bleeding after dental work
  • Very heavy menstrual bleeding
  • Pinpoint-sized red spots on the skin, often at the site of local trauma or injury

If these symptoms worry you or do not go away, seek medical attention.

Get medical care right away for any severe bleeding that will not stop even after pressure has been applied to the area.

How is thrombocytopenia treated?

The severity and cause of thrombocytopenia determines its treatment. The cause must first be decided. This can be done a number of ways:

  • Physical exam
  • A complete blood count (CBC) test which will show platelet count
  • Looking at platelets under a microscope
  • Abone marrow test.

Mild thrombocytopenia may require no treatment at all, especially when caused by pregnancy. If caused by pregnancy, it usually goes away after childbirth.

Serious cases of thrombocytopenia may require these treatment options:

  • Treating the underlying condition. After the cause is addressed, thrombocytopenia may resolve on its own. For example, if the low platelet count is caused by a medicine side effect, stopping the medicine might resolve the problem.
  • Transfusions. Replacing lost platelets with new ones. These donated platelets are given to the patient by vein.
  • Steroid or immunoglobulin treatment. If thrombocytopenia is caused by an autoimmune reaction, the doctor may prescribe medicines to stop the antibodies that are attacking the platelets.
  • Spleen removal (splenectomy). In rare cases, this treatment may be needed if the spleen is trapping too many platelets and keeping them from circulating in the bloodstream.

What are the survival rates for thrombocytopenia?

Thrombocytopenia is not usually life-threatening on its own, but its underlying condition may be. Survival rates depend on the cause of thrombocytopenia.  

Why choose St. Jude for your child’s thrombocytopenia treatment?

  • The nurse-to-patient ratio at St. Jude is unmatched—averaging 1:3 in hematology and oncology, and 1:1 in the Intensive Care Unit.
  • St. Jude takes part in North American consortia on bone marrow failure and ITP and conducts research in these areas.

The St. Jude Web site is designed for educational purposes only and is not engaged in rendering medical advice or professional services. The information provided through this site should not be used for diagnosing or treating a health problem or a disease. It is not a substitute for professional care. If you have or suspect you may have a health problem, you should consult your health care provider.