Also Known As
WBC Count
Leukocyte Count
White Count
Formal Name
White Blood Cell Count
This article was last reviewed on
This article waslast modified on November 21, 2018.
At a Glance
Why Get Tested?

To screen for or diagnose a variety of conditions that can affect white blood cells (WBC) such as an infection, inflammation or a disease that affects the production or survival of WBCs; to monitor treatment of a blood disorder or to monitor therapy that is known to affect WBCs

When To Get Tested?

As part of a complete blood count (CBC), when you have a routine health examination; when you have any number of signs and symptoms that may be related to a condition affecting WBCs such as infection, inflammation, or cancer; when you have a condition or are receiving treatment that is known to affect WBCs

Sample Required?

A blood sample drawn from a vein in your arm or by a fingerstick (children and adults) or heelstick (newborns)

Test Preparation Needed?

None

You may be able to find your test results on your laboratory's website or patient portal. However, you are currently at Lab Tests Online. You may have been directed here by your lab's website in order to provide you with background information about the test(s) you had performed. You will need to return to your lab's website or portal, or contact your healthcare practitioner in order to obtain your test results.

Lab Tests Online is an award-winning patient education website offering information on laboratory tests. The content on the site, which has been reviewed by laboratory scientists and other medical professionals, provides general explanations of what results might mean for each test listed on the site, such as what a high or low value might suggest to your healthcare practitioner about your health or medical condition.

The reference ranges for your tests can be found on your laboratory report. They are typically found to the right of your results.

If you do not have your lab report, consult your healthcare provider or the laboratory that performed the test(s) to obtain the reference range.

Laboratory test results are not meaningful by themselves. Their meaning comes from comparison to reference ranges. Reference ranges are the values expected for a healthy person. They are sometimes called "normal" values. By comparing your test results with reference values, you and your healthcare provider can see if any of your test results fall outside the range of expected values. Values that are outside expected ranges can provide clues to help identify possible conditions or diseases.

While accuracy of laboratory testing has significantly evolved over the past few decades, some lab-to-lab variability can occur due to differences in testing equipment, chemical reagents, and techniques. This is a reason why so few reference ranges are provided on this site. It is important to know that you must use the range supplied by the laboratory that performed your test to evaluate whether your results are "within normal limits."

For more information, please read the article Reference Ranges and What They Mean.

White Blood Cell Count Reference Range

The reference ranges1 provided here represent a theoretical guideline that should not be used to interpret your test results. Some variation is likely between these numbers and the reference range reported by the lab that ran your test. Please consult your healthcare provider.

Age Conventional Units2 SI Units3
0-18 years Not available due to wide variability. See child's lab report for reference range.
Adult 4,500-11,000 white blood cells per microliter (mcL) 4.5-11.0 x 109 per liter (L)

1 from Wintrobe's Clinical Hematology. 12th ed. Greer J, Foerster J, Rodgers G, Paraskevas F, Glader B, Arber D, Means R, eds. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins: 2009.

2 Conventional Units are typically used for reporting results in U.S. labs

3 SI Units are used to report lab results outside of the U.S.

What is being tested?

White blood cells, also called leukocytes, are cells that exist in the blood, the lymphatic system, and tissues and are an important part of the body's defense system. They help protect against infections and also have a role in inflammation, allergic responses, and protecting against cancer. The white blood cell (WBC) count totals the number of white blood cells in a person's sample of blood. It is one test among several that is included in a complete blood count (CBC), which is often used in the general evaluation of a person's health.

Blood is made up of a few different types of cells suspended in fluid called plasma. In addition to WBCs, there are red blood cells and platelets. All of these cells are produced in the bone marrow and subsequently released into the blood to circulate. There are five types of WBCs, and each has a different function.

Three types of WBCs are referred to as "granulocytes" because of the granules present in their cytoplasm. These granules release chemicals and other substances as part of the immune response. Granulocytes include neutrophils, which normally make up the largest number of circulating WBCs, eosinophils, and basophils. The other two types of WBCs are monocytes and lymphocytes. Lymphocytes are further divided into three subtypes: B lymphocytes that produce antibodies (also known as immunoglobulins), T lymphocytes, and natural killer cells (NK cells).

When there is an infection or an inflammatory process somewhere in the body, the bone marrow produces more WBCs, releasing them into the blood, and through a complex process, they move to the site of infection or inflammation. As the condition resolves, the production of WBCs by the bone marrow subsides and the number of WBCs drops to normal levels again.

In addition to infections and inflammation, there are a number of conditions that can affect the production of WBCs by the bone marrow or the survival of WBCs in the blood, such as cancer or an immune disorder, resulting in either increased or decreased numbers of WBCs in the blood. The WBC count, along with the other components of the CBC, alerts a health practitioner to possible health issues. Results are often interpreted in conjunction with additional tests such as a WBC differential and a blood smear review. A differential may inform the health practitioner as to which type of WBC may be low or high, and a blood smear can reveal the presence of abnormal and/or immature populations of WBCs.

If results indicate a problem, a wide variety of other tests maybe performed in order to help determine the cause. A health practitioner will typically consider an individual's signs and symptoms, medical history, and results of a physical examination to decide what other tests may be necessary. For example, as needed, a bone marrow biopsy will be performed to evaluate the bone marrow status.

How is the sample collected for testing?

A blood sample is obtained by a needle placed in a vein in the arm or a fingerstick (for children and adults) or heelstick (for newborns).

Is any test preparation needed to ensure the quality of the sample?

No test preparation is needed. Tell your healthcare provider about any medications (prescription and over-the-counter) that you have taken recently. Some medications can cause an increase or decrease in WBCs.

Accordion Title
Common Questions
  • How is the test used?

    The white blood cell count (WBC) is used as part of a full complete blood count (CBC) to:

    • Screen for a wide range of diseases and conditions
    • Help diagnose an infection or inflammatory process; it also may be used to determine the presence of other diseases that affect WBCs such as allergies, leukemia or immune disorders, to name a few.
    • Monitor the progression of conditions such as those named above; monitor the body's response to various treatments and/or to monitor bone marrow function; some treatments, such as radiation and chemotherapy, are known to affect white cells and may be monitored using WBC counts.
       

    White blood cells exist in the blood, the lymphatic system, and tissues and are an important part of the body's defense system. (See the "What is being tested?" section for more.) Some diseases trigger a response by the immune system and cause an increase in the number of WBCs. Other conditions affect the production of WBCs by the bone marrow or the survival of WBCs in the circulation, resulting in either an increase or decrease in the number of circulating WBCs.

    A WBC count can indicate that there is a disease or condition affecting white blood cells, but it cannot determine the underlying cause. Several other tests may be performed at the same time or in follow up to an abnormal result to help make a diagnosis. Some of these additional tests may include a WBC differential, a blood smear review, or in severe conditions, a bone marrow examination. A differential may indicate which type of WBC is low or high while a blood smear and/or bone marrow biopsy can reveal the presence of abnormal and/or immature WBCs.

  • When is it ordered?

    A WBC count is normally ordered as part of the complete blood count (CBC), which may be performed when an individual undergoes a routine health examination. The test may be done when someone has general signs and symptoms of an infection and/or inflammation such as:

    • Fever, chills
    • Body aches, pain
    • Headache
    • A variety of other signs and symptoms, depending on the site of suspected infection or inflammation
       

    Testing may be performed when there are signs and symptoms that a health practitioner thinks may be related to a blood disorder, autoimmune disorder, or an immune deficiency.

    A WBC may be ordered often and on a regular basis to monitor an individual who has been diagnosed with an infection, blood or immune disorder or another condition affecting WBCs. It may also been ordered periodically to monitor the effectiveness of treatment or when a particular therapy is known to affect WBCs, such as radiation or chemotherapy.

  • What does the test result mean?

    A WBC count indicates an overall increase or decrease in the number of white blood cells. A health practitioner will consider the results of a WBC count together with results from other components of the complete blood count (CBC) as well as a number of other factors, such as physical examination, medical history, and signs and symptoms.

    A high white blood cell count, called leukocytosis, may result from a number of conditions and diseases. Some examples include:

    A low white blood cell count, called leukopenia, can result from conditions such as:

    When WBC counts are used for monitoring purposes, a series of WBC counts that continues to rise or fall to abnormal levels indicates that the condition or disease is getting worse. WBC counts that return to normal indicate improvement and/or successful treatment.

  • Is there anything else I should know?

    If you have had your spleen removed, you may have a persistent mild to moderate increase in WBC count.

    Intense exercise or severe emotional or physical stress can increase a WBC count, but the test is not used to evaluate these conditions. Pregnancy in the final month and labor may also be associated with increased WBC levels.

    In the U.S. population, WBC counts are related to one's age, sex, ethnicity, and smoking status. It is not uncommon for the elderly to fail to develop high WBC count (leukocytosis) as a response to infection.

    There are many drugs that cause both increased and decreased WBC counts.

  • Can a WBC count be performed on a sample other than blood?

    Yes. WBC counts may be performed on many different types of body fluids. A common reason that this is done is to more directly assess one area of the body that may be infected or inflamed. For example, if meningitis is suspected, then a WBC count plus differential may be performed on a sample of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). Many other examples are listed in the article on Body Fluid Analysis.

  • If I have an abnormal WBC count, what other tests might my doctor order?

    Other general tests to check your health may include a comprehensive metabolic panel (CMP). Depending on your signs, symptoms, medical history, physical exam and suspected condition, your healthcare provider may choose to order a variety of other tests. A few general examples include:

View Sources

Sources Used in Current Review

Hsleh Matthew M, et al. Prevalence of neutropenia in the U.S. population: age, sex, smoking status, and ethnic differences. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2007;146:486-492.

Dugdale D. (2011 February 13 Updated). White blood cell count – series. MedlinePlus. Available online at http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/presentations/100151_1.htm through http://www.nlm.nih.gov. Accessed on 2/27/2015.

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (2015 February 23 Updated). Immune system. Available online at http://www.niaid.nih.gov/topics/immunesystem/Pages/default.aspx through http://www.niaid.nih.gov. Accessed 2/27/2015.

Pagana, Kathleen D., Pagana, Timothy J., and Pagana, Theresa N. (© 2015). Mosby's Diagnostic and Laboratory Test Reference 12th Edition: Mosby, Inc., Saint Louis, MO. Pp 991-995.

Sources Used in Previous Reviews

Thomas, Clayton L., Editor (1997). Taber's Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary. F.A. Davis Company, Philadelphia, PA [18th Edition].

Pagana, Kathleen D. & Pagana, Timothy J. (2001). Mosby's Diagnostic and Laboratory Test Reference 5th Edition: Mosby, Inc., Saint Louis, MO.

Susan J. Leclair, PhD, CLS(NCA). Professor of Medical Laboratory Science, Department of Medical Laboratory Science, University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, MA.

Pagana, Kathleen D. & Pagana, Timothy J. (© 2007). Mosby's Diagnostic and Laboratory Test Reference 8th Edition: Mosby, Inc., Saint Louis, MO. Pp 1003-1008.

Harmening D. Clinical Hematology and Fundamentals of Hemostasis, Fifth Edition, F.A. Davis Company, Philadelphia, 2009, Pp 305-328.

Henry's Clinical Diagnosis and Management by Laboratory Methods. 21st ed. McPherson R, Pincus M, eds. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier: 2007, Pp 543-549, 552-560.

Wintrobe's Clinical Hematology. 12th ed. Greer J, Foerster J, Rodgers G, Paraskevas F, Glader B, Arber D, Means R, eds. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins: 2009, Pp 1512-1516, 1522-1524.

(Updated May 10, 2010) Inoue S, et al. Leukocytosis, Medscape Reference article. Available online at http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/956278-overview through http://emedicine.medscape.com. Accessed March 2012.

(Feb 1 2011) National Heart Lung Blood Institute. What is lymphocytopenia? Available online at http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/lym/ through http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov. Accessed March 2012.

(Jan 23 2012) American Cancer Society. Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia. Available online through http://www.cancer.org. Accessed March 2012.

(Dec 7 2010) American Cancer Society. Acute Myeloid Leukemia. Available online through http://www.cancer.org. Accessed March 2012.

(Oct 25 2010) American Cancer Society. Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma. Available online through http://www.cancer.org. Accessed March 2012.

(January 8 2010) Kempert P. White Blood Cell Function, Overview of the Immune System. Medscape Reference article. Available online at http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/960027-overview through http://emedicine.medscape.com. Accessed March 2012.

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