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What is Pancytopenia?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Pancytopenia is a condition in which a patient has low levels of red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. There are a number of things which can cause the condition, making determination of cause an important part of the treatment process. This condition can be diagnosed with a blood test in which levels of blood components can be counted, but additional testing will be needed to find out why the patient has low blood counts.

Commonly, pancytopenia is caused by diseases of the bone marrow which interfere with the production of new blood cells, such as leukemia, damage to the bone marrow caused by radiation exposure, and so forth. It can also be caused by autoimmune disorders, or by conditions such as HIV. Certain medications have also been linked with presentations of pancytopenia, and drugs which carry a known risk of causing this condition are prescribed with care for this reason.

If a patient has this condition, a bone marrow biopsy may be done to learn more about what is causing the problem. The patient is also interviewed to collect historical information which may be useful or important to treatment. Patients with ongoing medical problems known to cause low blood counts may be able to forgo biopsy, with the doctor focusing on continuing to address the patient's medical problem, under the assumption that treating the problem will also resolve the problem.

Patients with pancytopenia are at risk of complications and health problems because of their low blood counts. They can be vulnerable to things like infection, and they may feel fatigued, experience weakness, and feel generally unwell. The symptoms vary from patient to patient, and can be complicated by whatever is causing the problem. During treatment, the patient may be advised to rest and to avoid situations in which exposure to microbes is likely, as the patient's vulnerability to infection can be an issue.

Pancytopenia treatment involves determining the cause and addressing it. Hopefully, management or resolution of the cause will allow the blood counts to go back up, treating the low blood counts. In the case of low blood counts caused by chronic illnesses, more careful monitoring and management may be recommended in the future to prevent recurrences. Patients can also have their medications adjusted if their drugs are suspected of being behind the pancytopenia.

After a bout of this condition, a patient may be asked to take periodic blood tests to confirm that the levels of platelets, red blood cells, and white blood cells are still within normal range.

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.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon934032 — On Feb 18, 2014

I was recently diagnosed with pancytopenia, but I realized that I have had the symptoms for years; the first one was the easy bruising, followed by fatigue, general unwellness, headaches, extremely heavy menstrual cycles (and I'm 50 years old!). I also have RA, and have had mononucleosis in which my spleen was elevated. I hope it's something that can be managed and not a symptom of a more serous disease.

By anon303521 — On Nov 14, 2012

Is this a permanent condition or does it go away after treatment

By ysmina — On Apr 30, 2012

My dad is in the first stage of bone marrow failure and low blood cell and platelet counts was what triggered doctors to do more testing.

Diagnosing pancytopenia is easy, it just requires a blood test. But finding out the cause is much harder, especially when you're dealing with other health conditions and taking various medications. My dad went through three different blood testing and finally bone marrow testing until we found out that he has bone marrow failure.

My dad was quick to link all his symptoms and low blood counts to the medications he's taking. But his doctor didn't brush it off and sent my dad to a hematology expert to look deeper for the cause which I'm so glad for. Had it not been diagnosed then, his condition would have developed into another stage by now.

By burcidi — On Apr 29, 2012

@turkay1-- My brother was on it for a short while and he did not develop pancytopenia anemia. But I don't think we can generalize that for everybody.

Azathioprine is an immunosuppressive and all medications that suppress the immune system have the potential of messing up blood counts.

But since you'll be having your levels checked regularly, I think you'll be okay. If your levels go down, your doctor will probably reduce the dose or take you off the medication completely.

Even if you don't develop pancytopenia, be careful not to get sick too much. I know my brother got sick often when he was on this medication. Serious infections can effect blood cell levels too.

By candyquilt — On Apr 29, 2012

I have Crohn's disease and I've just been put on a medication called azathioprine. My doctor said that I will have to go in to have my blood cell levels checked from time to time. Apparently, azathioprine causes pancytopenia in some people.

I'm really scared but my doctor said that his other patients taking this medicine have not had any problems. I hope the same will be true for me.

Has anyone taken azathioprine before? Did you develop pancytopenia from it? And what dose were you taking? I'm taking 150mg.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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