What are the symptoms and treatment options for hemophagocytosis?

Symptom Database

Hemophagocytosis, also known as hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (HLH), is a rare and potentially life-threatening condition characterized by an overactive immune system. In this article, we will explore what hemophagocytosis is, its symptoms, treatment options, causes, diagnosis, complications, prognosis, and ongoing research.

What is Hemophagocytosis?

Hemophagocytosis is a disorder in which the immune system becomes overactive and starts attacking healthy cells and tissues. This abnormal immune response leads to excessive inflammation throughout the body, affecting various organs and systems.

Symptoms of Hemophagocytosis

The symptoms of hemophagocytosis can vary depending on the age of the individual and the underlying cause. However, some common symptoms include:

  • Persistent fever
  • Enlarged liver and spleen
  • Jaundice
  • Easy bruising or bleeding
  • Skin rash
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Abdominal pain
  • Respiratory distress
  • Neurological symptoms (e.g., seizures, confusion)

It is important to note that these symptoms can also be associated with other conditions, so a proper medical evaluation is necessary for an accurate diagnosis.

Treatment for Hemophagocytosis

The treatment for hemophagocytosis aims to suppress the overactive immune response and manage the underlying cause. The following treatment options may be considered:

Immunosuppressive Therapy

Immunosuppressive medications, such as corticosteroids, are often prescribed to reduce inflammation and suppress the immune system. These medications help control the symptoms and prevent further damage to organs.


In severe cases of hemophagocytosis, chemotherapy drugs may be used to target and destroy abnormal immune cells. Chemotherapy is typically reserved for individuals who do not respond to immunosuppressive therapy or have an underlying malignancy.

Supportive Care

Supportive care plays a crucial role in managing hemophagocytosis. This includes measures such as blood transfusions, antibiotics to prevent or treat infections, and close monitoring of organ function.

Causes of Hemophagocytosis

Hemophagocytosis can be classified into two main types: primary and secondary.

Primary Hemophagocytosis

Primary hemophagocytosis, also known as familial hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (FHL), is a genetic disorder that affects the immune system. It is usually diagnosed in infancy or early childhood and can be life-threatening if left untreated.

Secondary Hemophagocytosis

Secondary hemophagocytosis is more common and can occur as a result of various underlying conditions, including:

  • Infections (e.g., viral, bacterial, fungal)
  • Autoimmune disorders
  • Malignancies (e.g., lymphoma, leukemia)
  • Metabolic disorders
  • Certain medications

Identifying and treating the underlying cause is crucial for managing secondary hemophagocytosis.

Hemophagocytosis Diagnosis

Diagnosing hemophagocytosis can be challenging due to its rarity and overlapping symptoms with other conditions. The diagnostic process typically involves:

  • Thorough medical history and physical examination
  • Blood tests to assess immune function and detect abnormal cells
  • Imaging studies (e.g., ultrasound, MRI) to evaluate organ involvement
  • Bone marrow biopsy to confirm the presence of hemophagocytosis

Consultation with specialists, such as hematologists or immunologists, is often necessary for an accurate diagnosis.

Hemophagocytosis in Adults

While hemophagocytosis is more commonly diagnosed in children, it can also occur in adults. The symptoms and treatment options are generally similar to those in children. However, the underlying causes may differ, with infections and malignancies being more prevalent in adults.

Hemophagocytosis Complications

Hemophagocytosis can lead to various complications, including:

  • Organ failure
  • Bleeding disorders
  • Infections
  • Neurological complications
  • Developmental delays (in children)

Early diagnosis and prompt treatment are essential to minimize the risk of complications.

Hemophagocytosis Prognosis

The prognosis for hemophagocytosis depends on several factors, including the underlying cause, the severity of organ involvement, and the timeliness of treatment. Primary hemophagocytosis generally has a poorer prognosis compared to secondary hemophagocytosis.

With early diagnosis and appropriate treatment, the prognosis can be improved. However, hemophagocytosis can be a life-threatening condition, and close monitoring and long-term follow-up are often necessary.

Hemophagocytosis Research

Ongoing research is focused on better understanding the underlying mechanisms of hemophagocytosis and developing more targeted treatment approaches. Researchers are investigating potential genetic markers, immune system dysregulation, and novel therapeutic agents to improve outcomes for individuals with hemophagocytosis.

In conclusion, hemophagocytosis is a rare and serious condition characterized by an overactive immune response. Prompt diagnosis and appropriate treatment are crucial for managing the symptoms and preventing complications. Ongoing research aims to further enhance our understanding of this complex disorder and improve treatment outcomes.

Haroon Rashid, MD
Rate author
Urgent Care Center of Arlington, VA
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