Hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (HLH) is a rare immune system disease. It occurs more often in babies and young children. But it can also occur in adults. Children may inherit the disease through genes. This is called familial HLH. But in adults, many conditions can cause HLH. This is called acquired HLH. It can be caused by some infections, cancer, and autoimmune diseases.
If you have acquired HLH, your body's immune system does not work normally. Some white blood cells called histiocytes and lymphocytes attack your other blood cells. Abnormal blood cells then build up in your spleen and liver. This causes your spleen and liver to enlarge. HLH is a life-threatening condition. It can cause death in weeks or months if not treated. It may also cause death in months despite treatment.
HLH is a rare disease, and researchers are still learning what causes it. There are 2 types of HLH: familial and acquired. Familial HLH is passed from parents to children. Acquired HLH in adults can be caused by:
Viral infections, most often Epstein-Barr virus
Other infections from bacteria or fungi
Some types of cancer, such as T-cell lymphoma
Medicines that suppress the immune system
If your acquired HLH is caused by a virus, you may have another genetic disease called X-linked lymphoproliferative disease (XLP).
You are more at risk for acquired HLH if you have any of the following:
Taking medicine to suppress the immune system
The most common symptoms of acquired HLH are:
Other symptoms can include:
Swollen lymph nodes
Yellow color of your skin and eyes (jaundice)
Lung problems such as coughing and trouble breathing
Digestive problems such as stomachache, vomiting, and diarrhea
Nervous system problems such as headaches, trouble walking, vision disturbances, and weakness
The symptoms of acquired HLH can look like other health conditions. See your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.
Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and health history. The provider may also ask about your family’s health history. They will give you a physical exam. The physical exam may include feeling your belly where your liver and spleen are. You will also have blood tests. These are done to look for:
Low levels of white blood cells called natural killer cells
Low levels of other white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets
High levels of fats in your blood called triglycerides
Low levels of fibrinogen, a protein needed for clotting
High levels of ferritin, a protein that stores iron
High levels of a substance called CD25, which increases in your blood when your immune system is active
Signs of infection
You will also have a bone marrow biopsy. Bone marrow is soft tissue in the center of some large bones. Blood cells are made in bone marrow. For this test, a sample of your bone marrow is taken with a needle. The tissue is looked at in a lab with a microscope.
Treatment will depend on your symptoms, your age, and your general health. It will also depend on how severe the condition is.
Acquired HLH may go away when your healthcare provider finds and treats the cause, such as an infection. In other cases, more treatment is needed. Treatment for acquired HLH that doesn’t go away may include:
Cancer medicines (chemotherapy)
Medicines that affect your immune system (immunotherapy)
Medicines that fight inflammation (steroids)
If medicine treatments don’t work, your healthcare provider may do a stem cell transplant. In this procedure, your diseased bone marrow cells are replaced by healthy bone marrow cells from a donor. Stem cell transplant can cure HLH in most cases.
Talk with your healthcare providers about the risks, benefits, and possible side effects of all treatments.
HLH is a life-threatening condition. It can cause death in weeks or months if not treated. It may also cause death in months even with treatment.
Researchers don’t know how to prevent acquired HLH.
Call the healthcare provider if you have:
Symptoms that don’t get better, or get worse
Hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (HLH) is a rare disease of the immune system. It more often occurs in babies and young children. But it can also occur in adults.
In adults, many conditions can cause HLH. This is known as acquired HLH. It can be caused by some infections, cancer, and autoimmune diseases.
If you have acquired HLH, your body's immune system does not work normally. Abnormal blood cells build up in your spleen and liver. This causes your spleen and liver to enlarge.
The most common symptoms of acquired HLH are ongoing fever and enlarged spleen.
You will have blood tests and may also have a bone marrow biopsy.
Acquired HLH may go away when your healthcare provider finds and treats the cause, such as an infection. In other cases, more treatment is needed.
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:
Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.
Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.
Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed and how it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.
Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.
Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.