White Blood Cells and Semen
If you and your partner are having trouble getting pregnant, then you may already be undergoing fertility testing or treatment. Male infertility accounts for up to 50% of all fertility issues, so it is a wise idea to have yourself tested. A semen analysis often brings to light fertility issues. In particular, many men discover that they have an elevated number of white blood cells in their semen. These white blood cells can negatively affect your fertility and may indicate an underlying health problem.
What Are White Blood Cells?
White blood cells are an essential part of the body's immune system. They help us to fight off invading cells and bacteria, keeping our bodies healthy and infection-free. Also known as leukocytes, white blood cells are produced in our bone marrow. They move throughout our bloodstream, attacking any foreign bacteria, fungi, or viruses. During an infection, an increased number of white blood cells can be found in certain areas of your body.
White Blood Cells in the Semen
White blood cells are found in pretty much any area of the body at any given time. They are typically found in small quantities in your semen and ejaculate. At low levels, white blood cells cannot affect your semen quality, and will thus have no impact on your fertility. However, high levels of white blood cells in your semen can cause serious fertility problems. Known as leukocytospermia, a high white blood cell count in semen is typically over one million leukocytes per milliliter.
How Common is Leukocytospermia?
Leukocytospermia is actually not that uncommon. It affects anywhere between 5% and 10% of the population, and may affect as many as 20% of those men currently seeking fertility treatment. Men who have undergone vasovasostomy tend to have more leukocytes in their semen than normal.
What Causes Leukocytospermia?
Leukocytospermia is typically the result of a genital tract infection. The presence of high levels of white blood cells is needed to help fight off the infection. STDs are commonly associated with leukocytospermia, particularly chlamydia and gonorrhea. Other genital tract infections may also cause an increase in white blood cells.
How Do White Blood Cells Affect Fertility?
In large quantities, white blood cells can have a detrimental effect on male fertility. This is because leukocytes cause the oxidation of cells. If you have high numbers of white blood cells in your sperm, this could result in the oxidation of sperm cells, damaging their ability to fertilize an egg.
Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS)
Leukocytes trigger oxidation by releasing reactive oxygen species. These molecules cause cellular damage by changing the makeup of individual cells. In particular, reactive oxygen species change the makeup of sperm cells, affecting motility and morphology. This can make it very difficult for you and your partner to achieve pregnancy.
The more white blood cells you have in your semen, the more likely it is that you sperm have been affected by the reactive oxygen species. However, every man has a different threshold regarding the amount of reactive oxygen species his sperm cells can hold. This is because the body has specific antioxidants that fight against the damage caused by the reactive oxygen species. Some men simply have lower levels of these antioxidants, leaving them more susceptible to oxidative damage.
Testing and Treatment of High White Blood Cell Levels
If you are dealing with male factor infertility, your reproductive endocrinologist will be sure to test and treat you for high white blood cell levels.
Testing for High White Blood Cells Levels
Testing is typically performed at your fertility clinic. A semen analysis can detect the levels of white blood cells in your ejaculate. You will also be given a urethral swab to determine if you are suffering from an active infection.
Treating High White Blood Cells in Semen
Treatment typically involves medicating any active infections with the use of antibiotics. You may also be advised to ejaculate frequently, in order to move excess white blood cells out of the seminal tract. White blood cells levels tend to drop on their own, however, they can increase again at a later date, so active treatment is suggested.