Your blood is a complex solution, containing many different components. Each of these components is important to the proper functioning of your blood, and consequently, your life. One of the major components of your blood are platelets. Platelets are tiny fragments of cells that are used to help form blood clots when your arteries and veins suffer damage. In short, platelets help you stop bleeding. Without these little helpers, you would bleed for a long time when you are cut. The medical condition known as thrombocytopenia is a lack of the proper concentration of platelets in your blood.
There are numerous causes of thrombocytopenia. In general terms, thrombocytopenia can be broken in to two broad forms. The first is known as Idiopathic Thrombocytopenia Purpura (ITP). The second is Thrombotic Thrombocytopenic Purpura (TTP). If this is a little confusing, don’t worry, it gives medical students headaches as well.
What are the symptoms of ITP or TTP?
Thrombocytopenia can often have very few symptoms, especially if the decrease in circulating platelets is mild. As the platelet levels decrease, a person will begin to bruise easily. Bruises are caused by damage to the small blood vessels in the skin. If there aren’t enough platelets to stop these minor bleeds, small amounts of blood will spill in to the skin and cause many more bruises than normal.
Bleeding of the gums is a common symptom of thrombocytopenia. This will often happen when a person brushes their teeth or flosses. Frequent nosebleeds are common as the platelet count goes down. The blood vessels in the nose are somewhat fragile and can easily be traumatized. Nose-picking, dry air and nasal passages, and trauma can cause a nose to bleed excessively in people with thrombocytopenia.
One of the more frequent symptoms of thrombocytopenia is known as petechiae. Petechiae are small, non-raised spots on the skin. They resemble a rash, and are caused by small leaks in the blood vessels near the surface of the skin.
What causes thrombocytopenia?
Many cases of thrombocytopenia have no known cause. This is what “Idiopathic” in ITP means. Platelet deficiencies can be caused by a decrease in platelet production, or premature destruction of already made platelets. There can be many causes of both types.
Some medications are known to cause damage to platelets. Aspirin is a commonly used medication that is often used to “thin” the blood. It does this by damaging platelets, and thus reducing the clotting ability of your blood. Other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications can do the same thing as aspirin. Other medications such as quinidine (for malaria), rifampin and sulfa drugs (antibiotics), and some diabetic meds can cause lowered platelet levels.
Acute infections, especially from viruses, can cause thrombocytopenia. HIV is a particularly common infection that can create this problem. Other common causes include; blood transfusions, damage to the spleen, drinking too much alcohol, exposure to excessive radiation, and many diseases such as lupus, leukemia, and cirrhosis of the liver.
Many cases of thrombocytopenia will resolve on their own over time. If the cause of the platelet deficiency is known (such as using aspirin), that can often be cut back or discontinued. Other cases may require more direct interventions, which depend on the root cause of the problem. Platelet levels must be watched carefully as there is increased risk of stroke and internal bleeding when platelet counts are too low. In some severe cases, platelet transfusions are possible.