The Recurrent and Metastatic Head and Neck Cancer Clinic at UPMC focuses on patients whose disease has returned or spread

What Are Platelets?

Your blood contains many types of cells. Each type has a different job to do.

Platelets — also called thrombocytes — are the cells that help your blood clot. The bone marrow produces them.

RELATED: Blood Clots: What You Should Know

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What is a Normal Platelet Count?

Platelet count is the number of platelets in the blood. A normal platelet count ranges from 150,000 to 350,000.

It’s important to have enough platelets in your blood. If the number of platelets is too low, excessive bleeding can occur.

The medical name for a low platelet count is thrombocytopenia (throm-bo-sigh-toe-PEE-nee-uh).

RELATED: What Is “Blood Thinner?”

What Causes a Low Platelet Count?

Some things can affect how well the bone marrow can produce platelets. When the marrow doesn’t make enough platelets, the platelet count in your blood is too low.

Cancer treatments — such as chemotherapy and some radiation therapy — can slow the production of platelets in the bone marrow and temporarily cause a low platelet count.

Bone marrow cancer and some other health conditions can also cause a low platelet count.

RELATED: What Is Leukemia?

How Will a Low Platelet Count Affect Me?

A platelet count below 50,000 is low. This may cause you to bruise or bleed more easily than usual.

A platelet count below 20,000 is very low. When it’s this low, you may bleed even when you’re not injured. Your doctor may order platelet transfusions until your count returns to a safe level.

What Are the Symptoms of a Low Platelet Count?

Call your doctor or nurse right away if you have any of the following symptoms:

  • Bleeding from your mouth or gums.
  • Nose bleeds.
  • Bruises on your arms or legs, with or without an injury.
  • Pinpoint-size, red or purple spots on your skin.
  • Brown or red urine.
  • Black, tarry stool or bloody stool.
  • Blood in your mucus.
  • Vomiting blood.
  • Vaginal spotting.
  • Long or heavy menstrual flow.
  • Persistent headache.
  • Blurred or double vision.
  • Abdominal pain.

How Should I Manage a Low Platelet Count?

For a low platelet count below 50,000, you must take precautions.

Follow the guidelines below to help prevent or stop bleeding:

  • Do not take any medicine — including over-the-counter drugs — without your doctor’s approval. It’s vital to avoid aspirin and other drugs that contain aspirin. If you’re not sure about a medicine, ask your doctor.
  • Use a soft-bristle toothbrush. Do not use dental floss.
  • Do not have dental work without your doctor’s approval. If you must have dental work, tell your dentist that you have a low platelet count.
  • Do not do heavy lifting, contact sports, or strenuous exercise.
  • Do not walk in bare feet.
  • If you feel weak and unsteady, have someone help you when walking.
  • Use an emery board to care for your nails. Avoid cutting your nails with clippers.
  • When shaving, do not use a razor blade. Use an electric razor instead.
  • Be careful when using household tools, such as knives and scissors.

RELATED: Beware of Blood Clots: What You Should Know

What Should I Do if I Get a Cut or Have a Nose Bleed?

If Then
You get a cut:
  • Place a clean cloth or a piece of gauze over the cut.
  • Apply pressure for a few minutes.
Your cut continues to bleed:
  • Lie down and stay calm.
  • Keep applying pressure. If possible, use an ice pack to apply pressure.
You get a nosebleed:
  • Sit upright then tilt forward to allow the blood to drip out.
  • Apply firm pressure to your nostrils, below the bridge of your nose.

When Should I Call 9-1-1?

Get emergency care for any of the following:

  • A large loss of blood.
  • Bleeding that continues or gets worse after 10 minutes of pressure.
  • Bleeding that does not stop completely after 30 minutes.
  • Feeling dizzy or lightheaded.

About UPMC Hillman Cancer Center

When you are facing cancer, you need the best care possible. UPMC Hillman Cancer Center provides world-class cancer care, from diagnosis to treatment, to help you in your cancer battle. We are the only comprehensive cancer center in our region, as designated by the National Cancer Institute. We have more than 70 locations throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York, with more than 200 oncologists – making it easier for you to find world-class care close to home. Our internationally renowned research team is striving to find new advances in prevention, detection, and treatment. Most of all, we are here for you. Our patient-first approach aims to provide you and your loved ones the care and support you need. To find a provider near you, visit our website.