This section has been reviewed and approved by the PLWC Editorial
Thrombocytopenia is an unusually low level of platelets in the blood.
Platelets, also called thrombocytes, are the
blood cells that stop bleeding by plugging damaged blood vessels and
helping the blood to clot. People with low levels of platelets bleed more
easily and are prone to bruising.
Platelets and red and white blood cells are made in the bone marrow, a
spongy, fatty tissue found on the inside of larger bones. Certain types
of chemotherapy drugs can damage the bone marrow so that it does not make
enough platelets. Thrombocytopenia caused by chemotherapy is usually
temporary. Nonchemotherapy medications may also
lower the number of platelets. In addition, a personís body can make
antibodies to the platelets, which lowers the number of platelets.
Radiation therapy alone does not usually cause thrombocytopenia, unless
there is a significant amount of radiation of the pelvis, the patients
are also receiving chemotherapy, or there is metastasis (spread) to the
Thrombocytopenia can also occur when cancer cells, such as leukemia or
lymphoma cells, crowd normal bone marrow cells. Although rare,
thrombocytopenia can also occur when other cancers, such as prostate or
breast cancer, spread to the bone marrow. While also less common, cancer
of the spleen can cause thrombocytopenia. Excess platelets are stored in
the spleen, and cancer of the spleen can cause the spleen to enlarge and
trap too many platelets.
Signs and symptoms
People with thrombocytopenia may experience some of these symptoms:
- Unexpected bruising
- Small purple or red
spots under the skin, called petechia
- Bleeding from the nose
- Heavier than usual
- Black or bloody bowel
movements or reddish or pinkish urine
- Blood in the vomit
- Bad headaches
- Pain in the joints or
- Increased weakness
Often, symptoms do not occur until the level of platelets
is very low and many patients do not know they have thrombocytopenia
until it is diagnosed during a routine blood test.Report
any symptoms of thrombocytopenia to your doctor immediately.
Diagnosis and treatment
Thrombocytopenia is diagnosed with a blood test that counts the actual
number of platelets in a sample of blood. This test is called a platelet
count. People with certain types of cancer or who are undergoing cancer
treatment that is known to cause
thrombocytopenia may receive regular blood tests to look for
thrombocytopenia and other blood-related complications.
People whose platelet counts drop while receiving chemotherapy may
receive a lower dose or wait longer between chemotherapy cycles. Due to
the risk of bleeding, surgery is usually delayed until platelets counts
are restored to a normal level.
Due to the risk of hemorrhage (spontaneous, heavy bleeding), people with
a low platelet level may be given a transfusion of platelet cells.
However, transfused platelets only last about three days, and some
patients may need multiple transfusions. In addition, some patients
receiving chemotherapy may be given a drug called oprelvekin
(Neumega) to help prevent severe
Along with treatment from your doctor, the following tips will help you
avoid problems if your platelet level is low:
- Don't drink alcohol or
take any medications without asking your doctor first, as many
medications can make bleeding problems worse.
- Use an extra soft
toothbrush and don't floss if your gums bleed.
- Blow your nose gently
using a soft tissue.
- Be careful using
scissors, knives, needles, or tools, and be careful not to burn
yourself when cooking.
- Shave with an electric
- Avoid contact sports and
other activities that might cause injury.