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What Are Foam Cells?

By T. Carrier
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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A foam cell is a specialized type of cell created by white blood cells. Initially a waste-removal cell type called a macrophage, the foam cell specifically targets cholesterol and fat buildup in the blood vessels. Once it has ingested these substances, it assumes a foam-like texture and appearance, thereby creating its moniker.

Cells are arguably the most basic components of organisms. The tiny structures are surrounded by protective layers known as lipid membranes. Substances like water and gases may pass into and out of a cell through these structures.

The membranes of foam cells primarily move substances inside the cell. They are known as macrophages. These cell types provide a valuable function: they both rid the body of unwanted material and secrete substances that combat foreign invaders like bacteria or viruses. Macrophages travel the body and ingest old, unneeded cells and harmful substances.

The specific substance foam cells target in the body is cholesterol. Ingested from high-fat foods, some forms of cholesterol adversely affect blood vessels, particularly the arteries. The deposits of fat that cholesterol helps build are ingested by foam cells.

Some of the body’s most valuable disease-fighting weapons, white blood cells, are the initial creators of foam cells. When fat begins building up in the arteries, white blood cells produce macrophages that are sent to clean up the fat streaks. As the macrophages become overloaded with lipid fats, they take on a foam-like appearance. Much of a foam cell's inner contents consists of low-density lipoproteins (LDL), which are substances that help facilitate the transport of fat in the blood.

Due to their presence on fat-plagued artery walls, foam cells are a major sign of atherosclerosis in the cardiovascular system. This condition occurs when plaque buildup on the inside of artery blood vessel walls causes hardening and clogging of the arteries. Foam cells can become stuck in the fat streaks of the walls, and when they accumulate in a concentrated area they can contribute to plaque buildup. As the arteries become filled with foam cells, this can cause a swelling effect known as atheroma.

Removing foam cells from the body requires treating the underlying atherosclerosis. Since the cells are triggered by the bad form of cholesterol, LDL, individuals can somewhat counteract adverse effects by seeking out good cholesterol, or high-density lipoproteins (HDL). Other atherosclerosis treatment approaches like exercise, diet, and medication can also help reduce foam cell density. If this condition is left untreated, health risks will often escalate into heart attack, stroke, or other potential dangers.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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