Low platelets may result from a number of factors, but often this condition occurs in cancer patients from radiation and chemotherapy treatments. Most commonly known as thrombocytopenia, low platelet levels compromise your body's ability to effectively clot your blood. Other possible causes include medications or severe injury resulting in blood loss.
The brain and the gastrointestinal tract rank as the two most common internal hemorrhage sites associated with low platelet levels, according to Judith Schilling McCann in the book "Pathophysiology: A 2-in-1 Reference for Nurses." Unfortunately, to diagnose these bleeds, diagnostic tests must be run. Before the results are known, the bleeds may progress and lead to serious complications. Dark and tarry stools indicate blood in the intestinal tract, but only a stool sample analyzed by a medical lab confirms the suspicions. A sudden and severe headache, nausea and vomiting could indicate a brain bleed; however, magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, or a computed tomography scan, or CT, of the head must confirm the hypothesis. Left untreated, these conditions may cause cardiac arrhythmias.
Petechiae, which are small, flat and red spots on your skin, increase in number when platelets decrease. Because the blood has a difficult time clotting, more blood will seep closer to your skin or flow into mucous membranes, states McCann. You may also notice your corneas becoming flushed with blood, and you may be more prone to development of blood blisters, especially in the mouth. Nosebleeds and bleeding from your gums occur frequently with low platelet levels. Report any nosebleed lasting more than 10 minutes or bleeding from the gums. Treating the early signs of decreased platelet levels may prevent development of the more serious thrombocytopenia complications.
When low platelet levels occur as result of administration of blood-thinning medication, such as heparin, cardiac tamponade may result. As the heparin thins your blood and drops the platelet count, fluid accumulates in the lining surrounding your heart, because the cardiac muscle loses its efficient pumping capabilities. As fluid builds up, it squeezes and compresses your heart and its chambers. Cardiac tamponade symptoms include chest pain, breathing difficulties, anxiety and confusion.
Prolonged Bleeding Times
Platelets stop the bleeding when you cut yourself. Bleeding from a simple paper cut that should stop in a mere moment could take several moments when you don't have enough platelets to efficiently clot your blood. Larger and more traumatic cuts and injuries could result in death if a low platelet level remains untreated. If your platelet levels are extremely low, a physician may order a platelet transfusion.
- "Pathophysiology: A 2-in-1 Reference Guide for Nurses"; Judith A. Schilling McCann, R.N., M.S.N.; 2005
- Chemotheraphy.com: Managing Low Platelet Count (Thrombocytopenia)
- MedlinePlus: Cardiac Tamponade