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Idiopathic Neutropenia


Idiopathic neutropenia refers to distinct diseases characterized by low counts of neutrophil granulocytes that render the affected individual prone to infections, e.g., chronic idiopathic neutropenia and primary autoimmune neutropenia. The patients' age at symptom onset, the severity of neutropenia and ensuing clinical presentations vary considerably.

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The clinical consequences of isolated neutropenia largely depend on the severity of the condition. In this context, the following general observations can be made [1]:

  • Mild neutropenia does not interfere with host defense mechanisms, but repeated measurements of low neutrophil counts should prompt a workup as to their cause.
  • Moderate neutropenia is well tolerated by otherwise healthy individuals, but may be associated with an increased susceptibility to infections in patients suffering from comorbidities of the immune system.
  • Severe neutropenia is generally associated with recurrent infectious diseases.
  • Agranulocytosis renders affected patients prone to life-threatening infections with opportunistic agents.

IN may be associated with mild to severe neutropenia, while agranulocytosis is very rare. A considerable share of patients does not present any clinical symptoms and neutropenia is incidentally detected while analyzing blood samples for non-related reasons. Even in case of severely reduced neutrophil counts, IN patients merely present with gingivitis, oral sores, or recurrent, febrile infection of the upper respiratory tract or skin, whereas pneumonia, invasive skin infection, sepsis or meningitis are uncommon.

  • A girl with cystic fibrosis and cyclic neutropenia developed an erythematous papular eruption without fever or neutrophilia 7 months after commencing therapy with G-CSF. A skin biopsy specimen revealed microscopic, sterile, neutrophilic abscesses.[ncbi.nlm.nih.gov]
  • Treatment with granulocyte colony stimulating factor (G-CSF) is effective to increase blood neutrophils in almost all cases; this treatment is reserved, however, for patients with both neutropenia and evidence of recurrent fevers, inflammatory symptoms[ncbi.nlm.nih.gov]
  • ZARXIO is indicated to decrease the incidence of infection, as manifested by febrile neutropenia, in patients with nonmyeloid malignancies receiving myelosuppressive anti-cancer drugs associated with a significant incidence of severe neutropenia with fever[zarxio.com]
  • In severe neutropenia, the patient is likely to develop periodontal disease, oral and rectal ulcers, fever, and bacterial pneumonia. Fever recurring every 19-30 days suggests cyclical neutropenia.[medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com]
  • During the periods of neutropenia the patient may develop fever and infections such as stomatitis, cellulitis, and vaginitis. There appears to be some abnormality of feedback mechanisms.[med-ed.virginia.edu]
  • The initial symptoms of neutropenia begin after 1-3 days with malaise, chills, sore throat, fever. Later easy fatigability and weakness are seen. Infection is the most serious consequence of neutropenia.[med-ed.virginia.edu]
  • […] circulating blood by cell changes that trap them in the lungs and spleen. neutropenia [ noo″tro-pe ne-ah ] diminished numbers of neutrophils in the blood. cyclic neutropenia a chronic form marked by regular, periodic episodic recurrences, associated with malaise[medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com]
  • Cyclical neutropenia in children (rare - recurring episodes of severe neutropenia accompanied by malaise, fever, adenopathy, anorexia and ulceration of mucous membranes).[patient.info]
  • The most common adverse reactions in patients: with nonmyeloid malignancies receiving myelosuppressive anti-cancer drugs are anemia, constipation, diarrhea, oral pain, vomiting, asthenia, malaise, edema peripheral, hemoglobin decreased, decreased appetite[neupogenhcp.com]
  • Signs of infection include: Infections must be treated as soon as they are recognized. high fever or low temperature chills and sweating flu-like symptoms malaise mucositis, a painful inflammation and ulceration of the mucous membranes of the digestive[medicalnewstoday.com]
Recurrent Infection
  • A 48-year-old woman who presented with chronic idiopathic neutropenia causing life-long recurrent infections, and postoperative suppurative wound infections, presented for elective coronary artery surgery.[ncbi.nlm.nih.gov]
  • None had recurrent infections, leukemia, lupus erythematosus, or rheumatoid arthritis.[nejm.org]
  • In addition to a laboratory assessment, neutropenia patients may have a history of frequent/recurrent infections, lung infections, chronic ear infections, skin infections, serious infections (e.g., meningitis, or bone infections) or chronic mouth ulcers[luriechildrens.org]
  • Patients may have recurrent infections, autoimmune diseases, a previously diagnosed haematological disease or solid tumour indicating an obvious disease-related state.[patient.info]
  • Currently, management of patients with chronic neutropenia who have recurrent infections or fever—or who may develop these symptoms—involves administration of G-CSF on a daily, alternate-day, or twice-a-week basis to stimulate and maintain a higher neutrophil[hematologyandoncology.net]
Oral Ulcers
  • Life-threatening infections can follow neutropenic nadir of the cycle, with frequent aphthous gingivitis, periodontitis, oral ulcerations, fever and occasional sepsis.[news-medical.net]
  • Focal symptoms (eg, oral ulcers) may develop but are often subtle. Patients with drug-induced neutropenia due to hypersensitivity may have a fever, rash, and lymphadenopathy as a result of the hypersensitivity.[merckmanuals.com]
  • Even in case of severely reduced neutrophil counts, IN patients merely present with gingivitis, oral sores, or recurrent, febrile infection of the upper respiratory tract or skin, whereas pneumonia, invasive skin infection, sepsis or meningitis are uncommon[symptoma.com]
  • Severe infectious complications (pneumonia, sepsis, meningitis) are seen in about 12% of the patients. In these forms of AIN the bone marrow is typically normocellular or hypercellular, with a normal or low number of mature neutrophils.[arthritis-research.biomedcentral.com]


Laboratory analyses of blood specimens don't only allow for detecting neutropenia, but may also reveal additional hematological alterations that imply or rule out differential diagnoses, e.g., lymphocytosis, anemia and thrombocytopenia. In order to monitor the course of the disease and to assess its severity, complete blood counts with differential should be conducted monthly over at least four months. More frequent measurements of neutrophil counts may be required to rule out cyclic neutropenia. Transient neutropenia may merely be associated with a recent history of infection and may not warrant any additional measures except for treatment of this infection.

CIN remains a diagnosis of exclusion. The following criteria have been established to this end [7]:

  • Neutropenia persists for more than three months.
  • Anamnestic data don't imply drug-induced neutropenia; no prior radiotherapy.
  • Exclusion of cyclic neutropenia and familial neutropenia.
  • Exclusion of other hematological disorders, immune-mediated and infectious diseases.
  • Exclusion of PAN as described in the following paragraph.

Diagnosis of PAN may be based on the presence of anti-neutrophil autoantibodies, but repeated testing may be necessary to obtain positive results. Immunofluorescence tests and leukoagglutination assays are usually carried out to this end. If neither analysis yields conclusive findings, a bone marrow biopsy specimen should be obtained. In both CIN and PAN, myeloid arrest may result in a reduced ratio of metamyelocytes and mature granulocytes. As for PAN, overall hypercellularity is more frequently observed than normo- or hypocellularity; in about a third of patients, no alterations are noted at all [9].

Of note, routine examination of bone marrow biopsy samples at the time of diagnosis of chronic neutropenia and upon exacerbation of neutropenia or appearance of additional hematological alterations has been recommended in the light of a possible transformation to malignant diseases [11].

Hypercellular Bone Marrow
  • Abstract The presence of immune-complexes (IC) and antipolymorphonuclear neutrophil (PMN) autoantibodies was investigated in 28 patients with chronic idiopathic neutropenia and normal or hypercellular bone marrow, 19 with a metamyelocyte arrest and 9[ncbi.nlm.nih.gov]


While acute infections may indicate antimicrobial therapy, most patients diagnosed with IN don't require any special treatment. Otherwise, long-term administration of human recombinant granulocyte colony-stimulating factor (G-CSF) may be recommended. In this context, CIN patients may receive daily doses of 6 μg/kg, while an application of 1.5 μg/kg three times a week is usually sufficient to treat infants suffering from symptomatic PAN [2]. Neutrophil counts should be monitored to assess the response to G-CSF administration, to adjust doses and to decide on continuation or cessation of therapy. In case of persistent neutropenia, corticosteroids may be used to increase neutrophil counts. Corticosteroids stimulate the mobilization of neutrophils from the bone marrow reserve pool to the circulating and marginal pool. High-dose intravenous immunoglobulin G has also been applied. In any case, therapeutic guidelines have not yet been established and an individualized approach is required.

In general, patients suffering from chronic neutropenia should be advised on appropriate measures to prevent infection. Besides mouth hygiene, skin care, and general hygiene measures, vaccination against bacterial pathogens may lower the individual risk of severe infections. Because of the low incidence of severe infections, prophylactic administration of antibiotics is not generally recommended.

Due to their predisposition for osteopenia and osteoporosis, CIN patients should undergo regular measurements of bone density.


IN is a usually considered a benign condition, although this assumption has been questioned [11].

As its name implies, CIN is a chronic disorder and generally persists throughout life without major complications [2]. The single most important risk factor for infections is the severity of neutropenia. Moreover, CIN patients are at higher risks of osteopenia and osteoporosis than the general population [12].

Spontaneous remission is observed in about 95% of children diagnosed with PAN and can usually be expected within a maximum of two years [9].


Neutrophils arise from hematopoietic stem cells and precursors, and neutropenia may either be provoked by reduced neutropoiesis, or by excess sequestration or consumption of mature cells. CIN is an immune disease characterized by a T cell- and cytokine-mediated reduction of neutropoiesis, and PAN results from the production of autoantibodies directed against precursors or mature neutrophils [2].

With regards to the former, excess release of tumor necrosis factor-α (TNF-α) and interferon-γ (IFN-γ) by immune cells in the bone marrow has been suggested to trigger premature apoptosis of CD34+ neutrophil precursor cells [3]. The aforementioned cytokines may induce an upregulation of Fas receptor expression and may thus render CD34+ cells susceptible to Fas ligand-mediated apoptosis. Lymphocytes are known to produce IFN-γ and Fas ligand and indeed, in CIN, those cytokines appear to originate from activated, myelosuppressive T lymphocytes [4]. Subpopulations of immune cells accountable for excess production of TNF-α could not yet be identified. Presumably, complex signaling cascades involving more than one cell type lead to pathological reductions of neutropoiesis prior to the onset of CIN.

PAN is increasingly recognized as an autoimmune disease. Autoantibodies directed against different epitopes on neutrophil precursors and mature neutrophils may not only cause an absolute reduction of neutrophil counts, they may also provoke functional impairment of those immune cells. In this line, it has been shown that determined autoantibodies may hinder chemotaxis, adherence to the vascular endothelium, and phagocytosis, among others [2]. The precise causes of this autoimmune response are still unknown, but molecular mimicry of microbial pathogens and drug-induced modifications of endogenous epitopes may contribute to autoreactivity.


Because milder forms of IN don't usually interfere with host defense mechanisms, the disease is most likely underdiagnosed. Thus, provided epidemiological data should be interpreted with care.

While the prevalence of neutropenia in the general population may be up to 4.5% [5], neither incidence nor prevalence of CIN are known. With regards to CIN, strong predilection for females has been observed [6]. The patients' age at symptom onset varies largely and may be 15 to 29 years (20%), 30 to 59 years (65%), 60 to 79 years (15%) [7].

For PAN, annual incidence rates of about 1 per 100,000 children aged less than 10 years have been reported in the 1990s [8]. Most commonly, infants are diagnosed with PAN when aged 7 to 9 months. Occasionally, symptom onset occurs much earlier or during the following years of life. Incidence rates don't differ between boys and girls [9].

Sex distribution
Age distribution


As per definition, mild, moderate and severe neutropenia may be distinguished and correspond to neutrophil counts below 1,500, 1,000, and 500 per µl, respectively. Patients presenting with neutrophil counts of less than 200 neutrophils/µl are usually diagnosed with agranulocytosis [6]. However, these values should merely serve as an orientation since reference ranges may differ for patients of distinct races, genders and age. In detail, children aged less than one year and patients of African descent are more likely to present with physiological mild neutropenia, i.e., with neutrophil counts below 1,000 per µl [10].

Neutrophils form part of the innate immune system; they are professional phagocytes and effectively control bacterial and fungal infections. Consequently, neutropenic individuals are predisposed to infectious diseases triggered by such agents. Their individual propensity for infection directly correlates with the severity of neutropenia as described above.


No specific measures can be recommended to prevent IN.


Considering the broader sense of the word, the term idiopathic neutropenia (IN) may be used to refer to low counts of neutrophil granulocytes that cannot be ascribed to an underlying pathology. In this context, different, poorly understood entities may be designated IN. Neutropenia may manifest at any age, follow an acute, intermittent or chronic course, and may or may not provoke clinical symptoms. Here, neutropenia may be the result of gene or developmental defects, may be autoimmune-mediated, occur as a complication of infectious diseases or malignancies, may be induced by drugs or radiotherapy - few cases remain "idiopathic" after a thorough workup, though.

Pathologies possibly associated with neutropenia comprise but are not limited to the following [1]:

Of the aforegiven entities, only two are still considered idiopathic, namely chronic idiopathic neutropenia (CIN) or primary autoimmune neutropenia (PAN). In 2008, Papadaki et al. proposed to limit the scope of IN to those diseases [2] and thus, this article will focus on CIN and PAN.

Patients affected by either disease present with similar clinical features, but while CIN is most frequently diagnosed in adult women, PAN typically affects infants and young children.

Patient Information

The medical term idiopathic is used to refer to diseases of unknown origin, whereas neutropenia describes the condition of reduced counts of neutrophil granulocytes, which are cells that fulfill important functions in the immune system. Primarily, neutrophils eliminate bacterial and fungal pathogens. A wide variety of entities is related with reduced neutrophil counts, and as long as neutropenia and additional symptoms cannot be related to any of those diseases, they may be deemed idiopathic. Nevertheless, a thorough workup usually reveals these pathologies to result from gene defects, viral or bacterial infections, medication or radiotherapy, and others. Nowadays, two entities are considered as truly idiopathic neutropenia: chronic idiopathic neutropenia (CIN) and primary autoimmune neutropenia (PAN).

While CIN may affect adolescents and adults, PAN is typically diagnosed in infants and young children. Both CIN and PAN predispose for infections with bacteria and fungi, but most patients show only mild reductions of neutrophil counts and don't experience any symptoms. If so, gingivitis, mouths sores and febrile infections of the skin and upper respiratory tract are most commonly observed. They may be treated with antimicrobials. Few patients diagnosed with idiopathic neutropenia require long-term treatment, which may comprise the administration of human recombinant granulocyte colony-stimulating factor, corticosteroids or intravenous immunoglobulin G.

While CIN generally persists throughout life without major complications, spontaneous remission is observed in the vast majority of PAN patients. Nevertheless, individuals suffering from neutropenia are strongly advised to take general hygiene measures to prevent infections and to discuss vaccination schedules with their physicians.



  1. James RM, Kinsey SE. The investigation and management of chronic neutropenia in children. Arch Dis Child. 2006; 91(10):852-858.
  2. Papadaki HA, Pontikoglou C. Pathophysiologic mechanisms, clinical features and treatment of idiopathic neutropenia. Expert Rev Hematol. 2008; 1(2):217-229.
  3. Papadaki HA, Eliopoulos AG, Kosteas T, et al. Impaired granulocytopoiesis in patients with chronic idiopathic neutropenia is associated with increased apoptosis of bone marrow myeloid progenitor cells. Blood. 2003; 101(7):2591-2600.
  4. Mavroudi I, Papadaki HA. Genetic associations in acquired immune-mediated bone marrow failure syndromes: insights in aplastic anemia and chronic idiopathic neutropenia. Clin Dev Immunol. 2012; 2012:123789.
  5. Hsieh MM, Everhart JE, Byrd-Holt DD, Tisdale JF, Rodgers GP. Prevalence of neutropenia in the U.S. population: age, sex, smoking status, and ethnic differences. Ann Intern Med. 2007; 146(7):486-492.
  6. Newburger PE, Dale DC. Evaluation and management of patients with isolated neutropenia. Semin Hematol. 2013; 50(3):198-206.
  7. Papadaki HA, Palmblad J, Eliopoulos GD. Non-immune chronic idiopathic neutropenia of adult: an overview. Eur J Haematol. 2001; 67(1):35-44.
  8. Lyall EG, Lucas GF, Eden OB. Autoimmune neutropenia of infancy. J Clin Pathol. 1992; 45(5):431-434.
  9. Bux J, Behrens G, Jaeger G, Welte K. Diagnosis and clinical course of autoimmune neutropenia in infancy: analysis of 240 cases. Blood. 1998; 91(1):181-186.
  10. Reich D, Nalls MA, Kao WH, et al. Reduced neutrophil count in people of African descent is due to a regulatory variant in the Duffy antigen receptor for chemokines gene. PLoS Genet. 2009; 5(1):e1000360.
  11. Papadaki HA, Tsatsanis C, Christoforidou A, et al. Alendronate reduces serum TNFalpha and IL-1beta, increases neutrophil counts, and improves bone mineral density and bone metabolism indices in patients with chronic idiopathic neutropenia (CIN)-associated osteopenia/osteoporosis. J Bone Miner Metab. 2004; 22(6):577-587.
  12. Fattizzo B, Zaninoni A, Consonni D, et al. Is chronic neutropenia always a benign disease? Evidences from a 5-year prospective study. Eur J Intern Med. 2015; 26(8):611-615.

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Last updated: 2019-07-11 20:51