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Why is my WBC count persistently borderline high?


The following is an actual conversation between an iCliniq user and a doctor that has been reviewed and published as a Premium Q&A.

Medically reviewed by

iCliniq medical review team

Published At February 10, 2018
Reviewed AtDecember 21, 2023

Patient's Query

Hello doctor,

My main concerns are persistent borderline high blood values for the last two years. WBC count 14.5 *10^9/L, neutrophil count 8*10^9 and lymphocytes count 5.3*10^9/L (laboratory normal for lymphocyte between 1 to 4.8). Other parameters are mostly normal. Main symptoms are currently upper abdominal pain with frequent indigestion when fatty, oily, or fried food is consumed. Particularly, issues with nuts and dairy products. I previously had IBS like symptoms and was also diagnosed with H. Pylori and stones in the gallbladder a couple of years back, although it was told that the stones were small in size. Please check the attached image for detailed symptoms by period and results of blood tests. I have also been requested for an ultrasound of the abdomen. What bothers me is the referral to a hematologist. Can you please suggest?

Thank you.


Welcome to icliniq.com.

I have gone through the attachments (attachment removed to protect patient identity).

Probable cause is cholecystitis.

After reviewing your records, it is noticeable that there is persistent leukocytosis with prevailing neutrophilia and a slight microcytosis that is low MCV (mean corpuscular volume) and hypochromia that is low MCH (mean corpuscular hemoglobin) of RBC (red blood cells).

Since your ferritin level is normal and no abnormal hemoglobin was detected, it is safe to rule out the presence of both iron deficiency anemia and thalassemia which makes the aforementioned constellation indicative probably of a chronic infection which may cause an impaired iron turnover as evident from the persistently low MCV and MCH.

Now, your primary complaint is abdominal pain, which obviously is a chronic one since it spans around two years. Yet, you do not state whether it is in the left or right abdominal half. The presence of gallbladder stones can cause chronic inflammation of the gallbladder and that condition can cause all related lab abnormalities.

You have elevated cholesterol levels and TGL (triglycerides) as well as a BMI (body mass index) which is considered obese. It is highly probable that the reason for these gallstones is the increased concentration of cholesterol in bile. It is advisable to repeat the USG (ultrasound) of gallstones that might have increased.

You should be offered a treatment regimen to "dissolve" the gallstones starting with the diet such as low fat/cholesterol food, intake of more vegetables and vegetable oil, also increased physical activity; secondarily, if necessary drug treatment or surgery. USG will also yield information regarding your liver and spleen, which is important if one is to suspect a hematologic disorder.

In my opinion, there is less reason to suspect a hematological disorder in your case. If such is to be considered, then given the protracted course of two years, this should be either chronic myeloproliferative disorder (such as chronic myeloid leukemia or myelofibrosis) of lymphoproliferative disorder (such as chronic lymphocytic leukemia).

Both are diseases of the elderly, then splenomegaly should usually be present. And you should have other symptoms such as nights sweats, weight loss more than 10% for less than six months, malaise, fever.

A simple differential blood count could reveal whether that neutrophilia is due to the presence of segmented cells only, meaning - infection or due to the presence of expanded WBC formula that could prompt further testing. As for the lymphocytes, yes, they are elevated, but their number is fluctuating paralleling and inflammatory state.

In case there is spleen enlargement on USG and you have enlarged lymph nodes, then further testing may be necessary to rule out chronic lymphocytic leukemia.

It is okay to be seen by a hematologist, who can review the differential manually and examine for the presence of enlarged spleen or liver and then consider whether further and more sophisticated testing is warranted. But most probably your complaints are due to the presence of chronic gallbladder inflammation.

As for the H. pylori (Helicobacter pylori), a more informative test is the stool antigen test. Serology for H. Pylori is often falsely positive, but the antigen test before and after the double antibiotic course is much more informative.

I would advise you to go through with a gastroenterologist once again and in alkaline phosphatase is present to monitor the WBC parameters with its resolution upon appropriate treatment.

Investigations to be done include abdominal ultrasound, GGT (gamma-glutamyl transferase) and ALP (alkaline phosphatase).

Patient's Query

Hi doctor,

Thank you for the reply.

My current session of GP visit was due to frequent indigestion-related pain that radiated to the back and mainly pain at the center of the upper abdomen. I can feel the pain if pressed on it. When you say the ALP, does it mean any of the below? Both seemed to be normal and were tested a couple of weeks back. The values are given in the pdf attachment I sent earlier. Serum alkaline phosphatase level 121 iu/L [30 to 130] Serum alanine aminotransferase level 33 iu/L [1 to 45]. Also, to clarify one of your points: In my opinion, there is less reason to suspect a hematological disorder in your case. If such is to be considered, given the protracted course of two years, this should be either chronic myeloproliferative disorder (such as chronic myeloid leukemia or myelofibrosis) or lymphoproliferative disorder (such as chronic lymphocytic leukemia). Both are diseases of the elderly then splenomegaly should usually be present. And you should have other symptoms such as night sweats, weight loss of more than 10 % for less than six months, malaise, and fever. Do you mean, if this were to be CLL (chronic lymphocytic leukemia) or CML (chronic myelocytic leukemia) over two years, I would have had splenomegaly accompanied by other symptoms such as night sweats, weight loss of more than 10 % for less than six months, malaise, fever? I have not had any of these symptoms, and my weight has been static, hovering between 187 lbs and 191 lbs in the last two years.


Welcome back to icliniq.com.

This is exactly what I meant. It is uncommon for hematological diseases to go without accompanying biological features like those mentioned. Therefore, the lack of those symptoms makes diagnosing CML (chronic myelocytic leukemia) or CLL (chronic lymphocytic leukemia) less suspicious.

Of course, a diagnosis is neither confirmed by the presence of those symptoms nor ruled out, but it certainly helps to look for another probable cause. For example, you describe a pain typical of pancreatic or gastric problems in the upper central area and radiating to the back.

If you had an enlarged spleen, you would have had left upper abdominal pain and early satiety. However, if it were related to the liver or gallbladder, it would have been on the right side, even though gallbladder pain can also irradiate the back.

ALP means alkaline phosphatase, which in your case, is normal. It is a measure of bile excretion and is elevated in case of blocked bile excretion, like in the case of gallstones. You should still perform an imaging study, such as an abdominal ultrasound.

It is very informative for the state of the gallbladder, it can confirm or rule out cholecystitis, and there is no radiation. However, it can yield less objective information about the state of the pancreas, but if there is a gross finding, USG (ultrasound) will detect it.

Otherwise, a CT (computed tomography) scan would be best to rule out a pancreatic problem. Laboratory tests indicative of pancreatic function are amylase and lipase. But imaging is crucial. Then again, since your complaints are GIT (gastrointestinal tract) related, an endoscopy is advisable because there is no other way to look for the presence of an ulcer, especially if your pain is provoked by food or gastric ulcer or starts 30 minutes after food intake it may be a duodenal ulcer.

To summarize, I would suggest an approach involving imaging studies:

  1. Ultrasound of the abdomen.
  2. Endoscopy (by a biopsy of the stomach mucosa, an H. pylori (Helicobacter pylori) infection can be proven.
  3. CT (computed tomography) scan of the abdomen if the previous two tests do not yield sufficient information. I hope that will be helpful.

Otherwise, looking for CML requires molecular testing for BCR-ABL (breakpoint cluster region-Abelson murine leukemia) fusion protein, and looking for CLL requires flow cytometry.

Both are highly specialized tests that would be recommended in case of heightened suspicion, which may not be advisable at this current level of information.

Patient's Query

Hi doctor,

Thank you for the reply.

I shall try and do as suggested by you. I get mucus up my throat every morning, which has reduced in the last few months, but I still notice drooling. The mucus is colorless and light, and many days early in the morning. When I wake up, I wake to a mild stomach ache, relieved by going to the loo, mostly after urination and wind. I am scheduled to go for a USG of the abdomen and a chest X-ray. I hope to share the details with you once I have had the reports. Hope this is fine. Also, do elevated C-reactive proteins say anything?


Welcome back to icliniq.com.

The elevation of C-reactive protein is caused by inflammation in the body, consistent with the mentioned suspicion and parallel WBC (white blood cell) count increase.

As for the mucus, there seems to be no specific reason for it or relation to some of your complaints. But again, the characteristics of the pain you mention, even though unspecific at first sight, pinpoint a GIT (gastrointestinal tract) problem. Ask for endoscopic investigation - both upper and lower gastrointestinal tract. It is indicated in your case.

Of course, it will be okay to share the results. I will do my best to help you as long as it is in my area of expertise.

Patient's Query

Thank you, doctor,

By parallel WBC increase, do you mean the slight elevation, albeit not normal, has not progressively worsened and has remained pretty static? Also, from some of the research papers I have read, it seemed like a small percentage of the population can actually have it naturally high. Is that true? Another query, of the five test results I shared with you, four of them were from one particular laboratory.

The normal ranges (in the lab where four tests were done) of WBC count, neutrophil count, and lymphocyte count are (4.0 - 11.0 * 10^9/L), (1.8 - 7.7 * 10^9/L) and (1.0 - 4.8 * 10^9/L) respectively. While the respective normal ranges in the other labs are (3.0-10.0 *10^9/L), (2.0-7.5*10^9/L), and (1.5 -4.0 *10^9/L). Now my mode lymphocyte counts in the laboratory where the majority of the tests were done were 4.7*10^9/L, i.e., borderline near the high end of normal in that particular laboratory (1.0-4.8 *10^9/L).

While the tests in the other lab with the lower thresholds actually had my lymphocyte count at c.3.87*10^9/L, again borderline near the high end of the normal range in that lab (1.5-4.0*10^9/L). So will the interpretation be that if I were to run all five tests in the lab with lower normal thresholds, I would have had similar results for the lymphocyte count (in the range of 3.87*10^9/L); is this how it is standardized? A recent article on the internet says any persistently elevated lymphocyte count greater than 6-7*10^9/L accompanied by lymphadenopathy, hepatomegaly, and splenomegaly must be referred to a hematologist.

Also, the doctor mentioned 'abdomen examined - NAD,' which I presume he could not feel anything unnatural, including an enlarged spleen. So, instead of investigating my gastric problems, I was surprised to find out why he referred me to a hematologist because none of the guidelines suggested that. Talking to you, I am reassured that I need to see a gastroenterologist as soon as possible. But we shall see what transpires from the USG (ultrasonography).


Welcome back to icliniq.com.

Indeed even though it is uniformly reported that the upper limit of WBC (white blood cell) is 10.5, this is a generalization representative of 90 % of the population. Still, there a 5 % of people at both ends of normality, so to say, that will be with either slightly lower or elevated levels of any lab parameter tested. But, again, this is due to normal distribution patterns.

On the other hand, WBC is a measure of an inflammatory response. They are most often elevated in case of inflammation or infection, in which case other markers of inflammation are elevated as well. On the microscopic evaluation of a blood smear, one would see mostly mature neutrophils.

In the case of a myeloproliferative disorder such as CML (chronic myelocytic leukemia), there will be distinct morphologic features even at the relatively low amount of 14 WBC for that disease. That is why I mentioned that a simple microscopic review of the smear would give useful information. And again, a change in one lab parameter usually is representative of clinical features and goes hand in hand with it.

So, complaints and findings of general examination should guide the lab parameter interpretation, not vice versa. Therefore, there is insufficient evidence to focus on looking for a hematological disorder in your case. There is interlaboratory variation in reported results. So, yes, this is what standardization means - averaging different values.

Not quite a rate. There can be huge variations between laboratories, making it crucial to guide a search for a disease based on complaints rather than the laboratory. Your lymphocytes could be elevated like in a young adult who often comes in contact with various pathogens and whose immune system is activated.

Then, a gross spleen or liver enlargement should be detected on a general examination. If they are slightly enlarged, then a USG (ultrasound) will help to assess that. In your case, the GP (general physician) did not find any clinically evident enlargement, so that a USG scan can be further informative.

I hope our conversation has been useful to you.

Patient's Query

Thank you, doctor,

I got my USG done some days back and have received the report today, which is given below:

Abdominopelvic ultrasound:


Normal in size, measuring 5.1 inches in MCL, showing homogenous echotexture. No focal lesions or biliary radicals dilatation.

PV is normal in diameter (not dilated).

Gall bladder:

Contracted with thickening of the wall with a single 17 mm stone.

CBD is normal in diameter (not dilated).


The average size of 4 inches on the long axis shows homogenous echotexture. No focal lesions.


The average size of normal appearance. No focal lesions.


Both are normal in size and parenchymal thickness with normal echo pattern and good cortico-medullary differentiation.

No stones, masses, or back pressure.

Urinary bladder:

Shows partial filling with smooth outlines. Regular uniform mucosal wall thickness. No stones, masses, or diverticulitis.


No ascites or lymphadenopathy.

Gaseous colonic distension.


Chronic cholecystitis.

So does this conclusively establish why the increased neutrophils and lymphocyte counts? Liver and Spleen sizes seem normal, and lymphadenopathy was not found.


Welcome back to icliniq.com.

Thank you for keeping me updated on your condition.

Based on the USG (ultrasound) findings, it is confirmed that you have chronic cholecystitis, which is inflammation of the gallbladder lining. And that low-grade inflammation should be the reason for the elevated WBC (white blood cell) counts in your case.

Moreover, there is no further evidence to suspect a hematological disorder based on the lack of enlarged organs. The spleen and liver are normal, and no lymph nodes are present.

Consult a gastroenterologist for further evaluation and a treatment plan which consists of complex measures such as diet, physical activity, medication, or surgery.

Patient's Query

Hi doctor,

Thank you for the reply.

I had a gall bladder removal surgery last year, and all blood tests were repeated last month. I have the results attached.

I do not have the excruciating, long-lasting pain and severe indigestion issue I had before the gall bladder removal surgery. However, I sometimes feel mild pain in the abdomen when I wake up, but it settles down eventually. I also feel mucous settling in the throat in the morning (like a post-nasal discharge and some acid reflux like GERD). I have also had boils on my skin (this problem I have had since I was a kid); could this be a bacterial infection that could elevate the neutrophils?

I do not have any other symptoms, and the elevated blood parameters seem to remain constant (non-progressive) for the last four years. Could you please have a look at the report and give your opinion?


Welcome back to icliniq.com.

I understand your concern.

I have reviewed your current and previous results. Indeed leukocytosis (both neutrophils and lymphocytes) is at a plateau. Microcytosis (low MCV) is persistent, and there is a slight decrease of MCH (hemoglobin concentration), serum iron is decreased, and iron saturation is approaching a lower limit. Up to now, I consider latent iron deficiency. Even though TIBC is normal, this would be my primary suggestion. Secondly, what makes an impression is the presence of reticulocytosis - those are young red blood cells and very slight elevation of red blood cells as well as elevated MPV (mean volume of platelets). Altogether, this can point to general reactivity of the bone marrow, i.e., the bone marrow is irritated and answers with increased cellular production. This can happen in the case of iron deficiency because the marrow is "hungry" for iron and strives to compensate for its deficiency through the overproduction of cells. The fact that hemoglobin is normal and TIBC normal speaks in favor of latency.

Iron cannot be absorbed efficiently due to altered bile excretion after gall bladder removal. Second, I suggest testing for ferritin. You had one previously done, so there is a baseline to compare to. Thirdly, after reviewing your previous results, I seem to need help finding reticulocytes, having been done before. Is this correct? It is important whether they were elevated from before. Because the presence of gall bladder stones and reticulocytosis can point to a hemolytic syndrome, like hereditary hemolytic anemia, due to a defect of the red blood cell membrane, of course, the normal results of bilirubin and LDH, to a greater extent, rule out this idea. Your bilirubin has been consistently normal. But I would recommend a manual review of a blood smear on a glass slide with attention to red blood cell morphology. This largely excludes a condition related to RBCs being abnormal in shape. Lastly, this problem with mucous secretion, like nasal discharge, is as persistent as leukocytosis. Suppose you have complained of heaviness in the forehead, nose, or cheekbones, sometimes headache, and episodically feeling of a "stuffed" nose. In that case, it seems plausible to think about chronic sinusitis. Again a chronic infection causes inflammatory distress to white blood cells (an inflammatory state to which elevated ESR also points). In conclusion, I would recommend decreasing priority testing for:

  1. Ferritin.
  2. H. pylori stool antigen test - to look for gastritis.
  3. ENT consults.
  4. A manual review of RBC morphology (unless already done).

I hope this explanation sheds further light rather than causing concerns. As I mentioned, symptoms should guide what to look for, not a blood test. Whether you are doing fine is what is important.

Investigations to be done

1) Ferritin. 2) H. pylori stool test.

Same symptoms don't mean you have the same problem. Consult a doctor now!

Dr. Elina Angelova Beleva
Dr. Elina Angelova Beleva


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