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What Is Myelosuppression?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 27 June 2014
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Myelosuppression is a reduction in the activity of bone marrow, resulting in decreased numbers of red blood cells, platelets, and white blood cells. This condition is most commonly observed as a side effect of medication, although there are cases where it may be deliberately induced, as when patients are preparing for a bone marrow transplant. While the bone marrow is functioning below normal levels, the patient is at risk, and needs to be monitored very closely. In some cases, hospitalization is recommended for people with myelosuppression until their bone marrow is functioning normally.

One of the most common reasons for a patient to have this condition is chemotherapy treatment for cancer. Myelosuppression is a listed side effect with many chemotherapy drugs and it must be weighed when developing a treatment plan for a patient and monitoring the patient through treatment. Since dying of cancer presents a more immediate risk, patients are usually given these medications anyway, but the treatment regimen may be adjusted to address falling bone marrow activity.

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While someone is myelosuppressed, the bone marrow is not making as many blood cells as it should be. Since many blood cells have a very short life in the body, the patient can start to experience medical complications almost immediately. These include anemia as a result of having a low red blood cell count, as well as immunosuppression caused by low white blood cell counts. The patient is at risk of developing serious infections and being unable to fight them off, and a relatively benign organism can become dangerous.

Patients on chemotherapy and other medications known to have a myelosuppressive effect will usually be given regular blood tests to check on their health. They will also be interviewed for signs of complications like fatigue and malaise. If a patient experiences rapid myelosuppression, a chemotherapy cycle may be altered to give the bone marrow more time to recover between treatments. The patient may also be hospitalized in a clean environment to reduce the risk of developing a fatal infection.

When myelosuppression is deliberately induced for a bone marrow transplant, the patient will be kept in a hospital and monitored as bone marrow activity is reduced with medication. When doctors are satisfied with the level of suppression, donor marrow can be infused. This bone marrow will start working in the patient's body, producing new blood cells and bringing blood counts back up to normal levels.

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