What Does It Really Mean When Your Platelet Count Is Low?

The blood has so many parts and so many functions. From platelets to plasma, from red blood cells to white blood cells, our blood has a multitude of jobs and actually makes up about 7-8% of our body weight (via American Society of Hematology). If any of our blood counts are abnormal, it could be a sign that something is wrong.

If a platelet count is low, it means that something is preventing your body from producing enough platelets (via Johns Hopkins Medicine). Platelets, blood cells that are literally shaped like small plates, are responsible for helping the body to stop bleeding. When a blood vessel sends out a distress signal and the platelets become activated, they grow legs and resemble an octopus, bonding to the broken blood vessels and causing a blood clot.

We normally have anywhere from 150,000 to 450,000 platelets per microliter of blood, but it's possible to have more or less, which could be a sign of a medical condition.

Signs of low platelets

When your platelet count is under 150,000, it's considered low and called thrombocytopenia (via Mayo Clinic). Platelets only live about 10 days, and normally the bone marrow creates new platelets to continually replace the ones that die. But in thrombocytopenia, platelets are reduced because either they're getting trapped in the spleen, not enough are being produced, or too many are dying off.

This can lead to mild symptoms or no symptoms at all, but in rare cases can cause dangerous internal bleeding. Symptoms can include easy or excessive bruising, superficial bleeding that appears as a rash, prolonged bleeding from injuries, bleeding from the nose or gums, blood in urine or stool, heavy menstrual periods, fatigue, and an enlarged spleen. See a doctor if you have any concerning symptoms. If you experience bleeding that won't stop with typical first-aid techniques, seek immediate medical attention. 

Low platelet count can be caused by a lack of production of platelets, which can happen due to leukemia and other cancers, anemia, infections like hepatitis C or HIV, chemotherapy drugs, radiation therapy, and heavy alcohol consumption. If too many platelets are breaking down, you can also have a low platelet count. This could be due to pregnancy, autoimmune diseases, bacteria in the blood, certain medications like heparin and sulfa-containing antibiotics, and some rare health conditions. Only rarely is thrombocytopenia due to an inherited condition.