The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 83

96. Why are cancer drugs used to treat mast cell disease?

Disclaimer: The following post was written by me in my capacity as a subject matter expert in mast cell disease and author of MastAttack. This is not work product of my position as a Senior Scientist for a large research organization. All below statements are attributable directly to me in my role as author of MastAttack and are in no way attributable to my employer. Information presented here is publicly available and includes no confidential information learned in my capacity as a Senior Scientist for my employer.

  • There are a number of medications used to treat cancers that are also used to treat mast cell disease. Some of those medications are old school chemotherapies, some are newer, targeted chemotherapies, and some help to control the immune system.
  • In mastocytosis, the body makes too many mast cells. If the bone marrow makes way, way too many mast cells, and those mast cells don’t function correctly, the mast cells can act like cancer cells. This can cause the mastocytosis to behave like cancer.
  • Systemic mastocytosis has several subtypes. The least serious forms do not act like cancer.
  • Indolent systemic mastocytosis (ISM) is the least severe form of systemic mastocytosis. ISM has a normal lifespan. While patients with ISM are at risk of dying for anaphylaxis, an important distinction is that patients with ISM do not die because the mast cell disease acts like a cancer. ISM does not act like cancer.
  • Smoldering systemic mastocytosis (SSM) is a moderately serious form of systemic mastocytosis. SSM can shorten lifespan. In SSM, the body is starting to make lots more mast cells than it should. Those mast cells can affect how organs function. SSM acts like an early cancer.
  • SSM requires treatment to stop it from becoming a more serious form of mastocytosis called aggressive systemic mastocytosis (ASM) that acts like a serious cancer. The treatments used to manage SSM are also used in some cancer patients to help fight cancer. These include meds that affect your immune system, like interferon; newer targeted therapies and chemos, like tyrosine kinase inhibitors; and older chemo drugs, like cladribine.
  • Aggressive systemic mastocytosis (ASM) is a serious form of systemic mastocytosis. ASM shortens lifespan significantly. In ASM, the body makes way too many mast cells. The bone marrow churns out so many mast cells into the bloodstream and then the abnormal mast cells get stuffed into various organs. The mast cells cause organ damage and can cause organ failure. ASM is often referred to as being malignant because it behaves just like a cancer. It is also treated like a cancer.
  • As mentioned above, interferon is a therapy that can affect how the immune system works. Interferon is sometimes used for ASM but it is less commonly used in ASM than in SSM. ASM patients need more aggressive treatment. Newer targeted therapies like tyrosine kinase inhibitors and multitarget kinase inhibitors are frequently used in ASM. Some of these newer therapies are FDA approved for treating some ASM patients. Cladribine and hydroxyurea are still common treatments for ASM.
  • Mast cell leukemia (MCL) is the most serious form of systemic mastocytosis. MCL greatly reduces lifespan. MCL causes production of an unbelievable number of mast cells. There are so many mast cells that they cannot all get stuffed into organs like ASM. This means that while there are lots of mast cells in the organs in MCL patients, there are so many mast cells like that there are still tons of them in the bloodstream. This leads to rapid organ failure, leading to death. Mast cell leukemia is cancer. It is treated like cancer with newer therapies like tyrosine kinase inhibitors and multitarget kinase inhibitors, as well as hydroxyurea or cladribine in some cases. As in ASM, some of the newer therapies are FDA approved to treat mast cell leukemia.
  • Sometimes patients with systemic mastocytosis develop a second blood disorder. This is called systemic mastocytosis with associated hematologic disease. Sometimes this second blood disorder is a form of cancer, like chronic myeloid leukemia. In these instances, the other blood disorder would be treated using cancer medications.
  • Mast cell sarcoma (MCS) is a cancerous form of systemic mastocytosis. Patients with MCS rapidly develop MCL and are treated as described above.
  • None of the therapies I mentioned here are indicated for cutaneous mastocytosis. Cutaneous mastocytosis does not behave like a cancer and is not treated like one.
  • In recent years, two other forms of mast cell disease have been described: mast cell activation syndrome and monoclonal mast cell activation syndrome.
  • Monoclonal mast cell activation syndrome (MMAS) is often considered to be a “pre-SM”. It is treated like indolent systemic mastocytosis and does not behave like a cancer.
  • Mast cell activation syndrome (MCAS) is not know to be an early form of SM. Many people live with MCAS for decades without ever developing SM.
  • Despite the fact that mast cell activation syndrome, monoclonal mast cell activation syndrome, and indolent systemic mastocytosis do not behave like cancer, cancer therapies are sometimes used in these patients. They are used when other therapies have failed and their symptoms are still poorly controlled. Generally, they are used when persistent mast cell activation becomes life threatening. In some instances, they may be used when a patient’s symptoms are not life threatening but are very disabling and cause a poor quality of life. In these cases, the patient and their provider make the assessment that they are able to assume the risk of using these medications.
  • There is very little data on the use of chemo and targeted therapies in patients with MCAS, MMAS and ISM, and no cancer therapies are FDA approved for these conditions. However, use of cancer meds for nonmalignant conditions is not that unusual. It is pretty common in autoimmune disease where lower doses of chemotherapy drugs can be effective in controlling the disease. Basically, the idea is that if we know that these therapies help forms of mast cell disease that behave like cancers then it might help those forms that don’t act like cancer.
  • On a number of occasions, I have seen patients discussing the dangers around certain cancer meds that are sometimes used to treat mast cell disease. In particular, I have seen comments that newer targeted therapies “do not kill cells”, “cannot cause organ damage”, and are “harmless.” This is completely untrue. There are thousands of articles on the side effects and complications of all of the meds I have described here. None of them are harmless. Patients need to understand the risks associated with these therapies.
  • I would like to add a note about something sort of related. Xolair is an anti-IgE medication that is used by many mast cell patients. It is a subcutaneous injection and is administered in a healthcare setting. Patients are required to stay in the office for a little while after the shots are given to be sure that they don’t have a bad reaction. Because the patient is monitored in the office after the shot, the provider’s office will bill insurance for the observation period. The old billing code for this often comes up as “chemotherapy observation” because the same code was used for patients who needed monitoring after chemo. This means that patients may see “chemo” on the explanation of benefits from their insurance company. This does not mean that they received chemo. Xolair is NOT chemotherapy. It’s just a quirk of the medical billing. There is now a new code for post injection observation for meds that are not chemo but not everyone has caught up to it. Just figured I would mention this as people ask about it from time to time.

The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 82

95. How do you take oral cromolyn?

  • Cromolyn is a mast cell stabilizer. Most mast cell patients are on cromolyn. Currently, it is taken orally for use in the GI tract, or it is taken nebulized for use in the lungs.
  • Cromolyn is an incredibly finicky substance. It sticks to everything. Your body barely uses it: only 2% of cromolyn is actually absorbed in the GI tract and only 5% in the lungs. The cromolyn that is absorbed is actually not the cromolyn that helps stabilize mast cells. The rest basically just sits on top of cells in the GI tract or lungs and stabilizes mast cells that way.
  • In order to maximize benefit from cromolyn, it is important that it not be taken when there is food or medications that cromolyn could stick to. This is mostly an issue for oral cromolyn used in the GI tract. You do not want to take other medications too close to taking cromolyn because the cromolyn may stick to the other med and not be available to stabilize mast cells. You do not want to eat too close to taking cromolyn because the food could stick to cromolyn, making it unavailable to stabilize mast cells, or the food could block the cromolyn from getting to the surface of the mast cells, preventing it from stabilizing them.
  • Oral cromolyn is usually taken 30 minutes before meals and at bedtime for a total of four times daily. Cromolyn should not be taken until two hours or more after eating the previous meal as this is about how long it takes for food to move out of the stomach. It is worth noting that many mast cell patients have gastroparesis or impaired GI motility which can cause food to stay in the stomach longer. There is no particular recommendation on what to do in this instance.
  • Ampules of cromolyn need to be stored at room temperature and protected from light. The ampules should not be taken out of the foil packs until you are using them. They should not be mixed ahead of time.
  • The intended dose for oral cromolyn in mast cell patients is usually 200 mg (two ampules) four times a day. Patients usually do better when they gradually increase the amount of cromolyn they are taking rather than starting at that dose. How slowly they increase varies widely. Patients should speak with their providers about an appropriate dosing schedule. There is lots of information about this in patient groups and forums.

The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 81

94. How are mast cells involved in cancer?

  • Mast cells are very involved in cancer biology. They are frequently found in tumors. Tumors can trick mast cells into doing things they need to stay alive, like make blood vessels to supply the tumor with blood, and tissue remodeling, to push aside the healthy tissue and make room for the tumor.
  • Cancer is mast cell activating. All cancers. This is because cancers often trick the body into doing things that help the cancer and not the body, like I just described above. Having cancer frequently causes allergy symptoms because of mast cell activation.
  • Cancer can also cause the body to make more mast cells than normal, a condition called mast cell hyperplasia. This can happen because the body is trying to fight off the cancer with more immune cells or because it has been tricked by the cancer to make more mast cells to help the cancer.
  • Please note that mast cell hyperplasia is NOT the same as mastocytosis. Mast cell hyperplasia is too many healthy mast cells that function normally. Mastocytosis is too many aberrant mast cells that do not function normally. Cancer does not cause mastocytosis.
  • Long term inflammation increases future risk of cancer at the site of inflammation. This applies almost universally. Mast cells participate significantly in inflammation so they can contribute to the risk of cancer. For example, patients with long term colon inflammation, which may be caused by mast cells, are at increased risk of colon cancer.
  • Patients with mastocytosis have increased risk of developing cancer, especially those with systemic mastocytosis. As many as 40% of patients with systemic mastocytosis develop another blood disorder with too many broken cells. Frequently, the other blood disorder is a blood cancer like chronic myelogenous leukemia.
  • It is not yet known if mast cell activation carries an increased risk of developing cancer.
  • Two forms of systemic mastocytosis are cancerous, mast cell leukemia and mast cell sarcoma. These are both extremely rare and it is extremely rare for a person with a history of mast cell disease to develop either of these conditions.

For further reading, please visit the following post:

The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 48

Mast cells in the GI tract: How many is too many? (Part Three)

The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 80

93. How is adrenal insufficiency related to mast cell disease?

Adrenal insufficiency is when the adrenal glands do not make enough cortisol, a stress hormone your body needs to help your body respond to the things happening inside and around it. Not having enough cortisol is dangerous and can be fatal.

Adrenal insufficiency is not the same as adrenal fatigue. Patients with adrenal insufficiency demonstrate lower than normal levels of cortisol. Adrenal fatigue is a term that is used to describe a similar constellation of symptoms as seen in adrenal insufficiency but without the lower than normal serum cortisol level when tested. Adrenal fatigue is not well accepted in main stream medicine.

There are several steps involved in making cortisol. These steps use hormones to tell the body to make other hormones until cortisol is finally made. The molecules that are involved in getting the body to make cortisol are collectively called the HPA axis.

Mast cells interact with the HPA axis a lot and in several ways. I have written extensively about this before.

The activity of the HPA axis can either activate mast cells or stabilize them. It can tell the body to make epinephrine, which decreases mast cell activation. But it can also tell mast cells to make inflammation.

It also works in the other direction. Mast cell activation can activate the HPA axis or not, but it usually activates it. If mast cells generate enough inflammation, that can turn on the HPA axis, which in turn activates mast cells even more. This basically means that if you have frequent mast cell activation, your body can end up in a constant fight or flight response. The inflammation generated can be enormous.

When the body has been in a stress response for too long, the adrenal glands can stop making cortisol, causing adrenal insufficiency. This can cause mast cell activation.

Steroids like prednisone mimic the action of cortisol, the stress hormone. Steroids are sometimes used to treat mast cell disease. The purpose of the steroids is to make cells like mast cells stop causing inflammation. If you take systemic steroids like prednisone routinely, your body can become confused and stop making cortisol on its own. This means that when you stop taking the prescription, your body will not have enough cortisol, causing adrenal insufficiency. This activates mast cells in a huge way. Patients often have a hard time getting back to a good baseline without steroids if they have been on steroids for a while.

There is an autoimmune disease called Addison’s Disease that causes adrenal insufficiency. MCAS sometimes occurs secondary to Addison’s.

 

For further reading, please visit the following posts:

The effects of cortisol on mast cells: Cortisol and HPA axis (Part 1 of 3)
The effects of cortisol on mast cells: Cortisol and HPA axis (Part 2 of 3)
The effects of cortisol on mast cells: Cortisol and HPA axis (Part 3 of 3)
Corticotropin releasing hormone, cortisol and mast cells
Mood disorders and inflammation: High cortisol and low serotonin

The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 78

91. How long should it take to know if a medication is working?

  • This topic is controversial and how long to trial meds is not agreed upon. It varies by provider. This is because there haven’t been many studies done on how long it takes to see therapeutic effects in mast cell patients.
  • Firstly, this question is not “how long does it take for a medication to become active after I take it.” This question is how long you should keep taking a new medication to see if it helps your disease.
  • Firstly, when you are trialing a new medication, or even a new medication dose, try as hard as possible to not change anything else at the same time. It is easier to do this for medication that has short term benefits. I realize this is not always possible, and when it is, it is still a pain.
  • However, you really do need to be able to tell if any changes that occur are from the medication change or not. For example, if you are trying a new antihistamine, and two days after you start it, you also increase your dose of another med, and two weeks later you feel better, you are going to have no idea if it was the new antihistamine or the dose increase of the other med that helped.
  • In my experience, this leads to people being on a ton of meds that don’t all help. Some of us are on a ton of meds that actually help and that can’t always be prevented, but a lot of people just keeping adding things on top of one other without being sure they help. This can really complicate things down the line.
  • How long I trial meds has always been determined by how long it takes for them to cause notable changes in clinical symptoms. Because there aren’t a lot of studies on this topic in mast cell patients, it is common to use recommended time frames found in literature for other cells or other diseases.
  • If they have immediate short term benefits, I trial them for two weeks. Medications that block mediators from acting, like antihistamines and leukotriene inhibitors, are in this group.
  • If they have moderate term benefits, I trial them for six weeks. Medications that prevent mediators from being made, like COX inhibitors for prostaglandins or 5-lipoxygenase inhibitors like zileuton, are in this group.
  • If they have long term benefits, I trial them for sixteen weeks. Mast cell stabilizers like cromolyn and ketotifen and biologics like anti-IgE therapies are in this group.
  • If meds have mixed term benefits (like short term and long term effects), I trial them for the longer term.
  • Please note that steroids are a special case here because they have so many effects that are short, moderate and long term. People generally see immediate relief from them but they really are not meds that should be taken regularly if it can be avoided due to the slew of dangerous side effects.
  • These time frames have been recommended to me by my care team but you will need to discuss this with your own care team. I have found literature supporting these time frames necessary to produce clinical changes in other cell types or diseases.
  • I would also like to mention that in the past, I thought that four weeks was the appropriate period for trialing meds with short term benefits like antihistamines. I now feel that a two week trial is sufficient to identify benefits from these meds.
  • Please also note that for advanced systemic mastocytosis, including aggressive systemic mastocytosis and mast cell leukemia, there have been studies that have identified optimal duration of therapy to see a response for interferon and chemotherapies.

 

The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 77

90. What causes pain in mast cell disease?

  • Most mast cell patients experience some kind of pain. Because mast cells are involved in pain sensation and inflammation, mast cell patients are at risk of pain by different mechanisms throughout their body.
  • Mast cells are involved in nerve pain. Mast cells often live very close to nerves, sometimes so close they are touching. When nerve cells feel pain, they release mediators to activate mast cells. The mast cells then activate other nearby nerve cells. The result of this is that the brain gets a pain signal from lots of nerves, not just the nerves that initially felt the pain, so the pain you feel is worse.
  • Mast cells participate in inflammation. One of the big things they do is send signals to other immune cells to come to the site of inflammation. These cells release mediators that can cause pain or make it worse. Nerve cells nearby will send a stronger pain signal again in response to these immune cells causing inflammation.
  • Mast cells are involved in hyperalgesia, when your nerves are very sensitive and send a stronger than normal pain response to things that shouldn’t normally be very painful. For this reason, many mast cell patients have a heightened pain response, even to things that aren’t normally very painful.
  • Mast cells are associated with a number of chronic pain conditions.
  • Visceral pain is when you feel pain in your internal organs, like your GI tract or your liver. Visceral pain is often not localized so it can be hard to tell what is actually hurting. Mast cell patients often report visceral pain.
  • Pelvic pain is linked to mast cell activation and can cause serious symptoms, including painful sex. Pelvic floor dysfunction is sometimes seen in mast cell patients. Interstitial cystitis, chronic inflammation of the bladder, is also driven by mast cells, although it’s not exactly clear how.
  • Mast cells are major players in GI pain. Mast cell degranulation activates the nerves inside the GI tract, which can cause abdominal pain. This causes pain in a number of GI diseases aside from mast cell disease.
  • Many mast cell patients have connective tissue disease like Ehlers Danlos Syndrome. This can cause the organs to not be supported properly, causing them to move around, activating a pain response.
  • Mast cells can cause bone pain in multiple ways. In systemic mastocytosis, production of so many mast cells in the bone marrow can cause pressure inside the bone that causes pain. Mast cell mediators can cause dysregulation of the system that degrades old parts of the bone and replaces it with new, stronger bone. This can cause the bones to be too thick or too thin. Mast cell patients may have bone disorders as a result and should be especially watchful for Mast cell mediators like histamine can also irritate the cells on the outside of the bone, causing pain.
  • Mast cell activation can cause headaches and migraines. Mast cell mediators can affect how much blood is getting to the head and brain, which can cause pain. Many mast cell patients have POTS, which can also cause the same problem.
  • Systemic mastocytosis patients can have dense infiltration of their organs by mast cells. This infiltration punches holes in the tissue, leading to inflammation and pain.
  • Cutaneous mastocytosis patients have similar issues with infiltration of the skin.
  • Infiltration is NOT necessary for mast cell activation to cause pain.
  • Mast cell patients have to be cautious in how they treat their pain as many medications for pain management can cause mast cell degranulation.
  • NSAIDs can be used in patients that tolerate them.
  • Acetaminophen and tramadol are considered mast cell friendly.
  • Gabapentin and pregabalin are sometimes used for neurologic pain in mast cell patients.
  • If opiates are needed, fentanyl and hydromorphone are preferred. Morphine is a massive mast cell degranulator and should be avoided.
  • Certain numbing medications can trigger mast cells, like ester caine anesthetics.
  • Cyclobenzamide is a muscle relaxer commonly used in mast cell patients.

 

For more information, please visit the following posts:

Mast cells in nerve pain

The Provider Primer Series: Medications that impact mast cell degranulation and anaphylaxis

Premedication and surgical concerns in mast cell patients

The Sex Series – Part Six: Male pelvic floor and mast cells

The Sex Series – Part Eight: Female pelvic floor dysfunction

The Sex Series – Part Nine: Female pelvic floor dysfunction

 

The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 76

I get asked a lot about how mast cell disease can affect common blood test results. I have broken this question up into several more manageable pieces so I can thoroughly discuss the reasons for this. The next few 107 series posts will cover how mast cell disease can affect red blood cell count; white blood cell count, including the counts of specific types of white blood cells; platelet counts; liver function tests; kidney function tests; electrolytes; clotting tests; and a few miscellaneous tests.

89. How does mast cell disease affect platelet counts?

Before I continue, I want to explain one basic fact. Even though they are often included in the term “blood cells”, platelets are not actually cells. They are actually pieces of an original large cell called a megakaryocyte that lives in the bone marrow. Even though platelets are not really cells, they more or less act like they are.

An unusual thing about platelets is that sometimes a specific trigger can cause platelets to become lower or higher.

There are several ways in which mast cell disease can make platelet counts lower.

  • Swelling of the spleen. This can happen in some forms of systemic mastocytosis, and may also happen in some patients with mast cell activation syndrome, although the reason why it happens in MCAS is not as clear. Swelling of the spleen can damage blood cells and platelets, causing lower platelet counts. If the spleen is very stressed and working much too hard, a condition called hypersplenism, the damage to blood cells and platelets is much more pronounced. This may further lower platelet counts. Hypersplenism occurs in aggressive systemic mastocytosis or mast cell leukemia. It is not a feature of other forms of systemic mastocytosis and I am not aware of any cases as a result of mast cell activation syndrome.
  • Medications. Some medications that are used to manage mast cell disease can cause low red blood cell count. Chemotherapies, including targeted chemotherapies like tyrosine kinase inhibitors, can cause low platelet counts. Non steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are used by some mast cell patients to decrease production of prostaglandins. They can interfere with platelet production in the bone marrow. Proton pump inhibitors, often used by mast cell patients to help with GI symptoms like heart burn, can decrease platelet coun Some H2 antihistamines can also lower platelet production. However, none of these H2 antihistamines are currently used in medicine.
  • Heparin induced thrombocytopenia. Mast cells make and release large amounts of heparin, a powerful blood thinner. When there is an excessive amount of heparin circulating, it can cause your body to incorrectly produce antibodies that cause an immune response to heparin. A side effect of this situation is that platelets are activated incorrectly, which can lead to the formation of blood clots and low platelet counts. Heparin induced thrombocytopenia has only been definitively described in patients who receive medicinal heparin as a blood thinner. However, it is reasonable to assume that this situation can also affect mast cell patients who have higher than normal levels of platelets circulating in the blood.
  • Liver damage. Liver damage is associated with malignant forms of systemic mastocytosis such as aggressive systemic mastocytosis and mast cell leukemia. Liver damage can also occur as the result of IV nutrition, which is sometimes needed by patients with mastocytosis or mast cell activation syndrome. When the liver is damaged enough, it may not make enough of the molecules that tell the bone marrow to make platelets.
  • Excessive production of blood cells. In very aggressive forms of systemic mastocytosis, aggressive systemic mastocytosis or mast cell leukemia, the bone marrow is making huge amounts of mast cells. As a result, the bone marrow makes fewer platelets and cells of other types.
  • Vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Chronic inflammation can affect the way your body absorbs vitamins and minerals through the GI tract, and the way it uses vitamins and minerals that it does absorb. Deficiency of vitamin B12 or folate can decrease platelet production.
  • Excess fluid in the bloodstream (hypervolemia). In this situation, the body doesn’t actually have too few platelets, it just looks like it. If your body loses a lot of fluid to swelling (third spacing) and that fluid is mostly reabsorbed at once, the extra fluid in the bloodstream can make it look like there are too few platelets if they do a blood test. This can also happen if a patient receives a lot of IV fluids.

There are also reasons why mast cell disease can cause the body to make too many platelets.

  • Anemia of chronic inflammation. This is when chronic inflammation in the body affects the way the body absorbs and uses iron. It can result in iron deficiency. Iron deficiency can increase platelet counts.
  • Hemolytic anemia. In hemolytic anemia, the body destroys red blood cells. This can happen for several reasons that may be present in mast cell patients. Hemolytic anemia can increase platelet counts.
  • Iron deficiency. Iron deficiency for any reason can elevate platelet counts.
  • Excessive bleeding. Mast cell disease can cause excessive bleeding in several ways. Mast cells release lots of heparin, a very potent blood thinner that decreases clotting. This makes it easier for the body to bleed. It is not unusual for mast cell patients to have unusual bruising. Bleeding in the GI tract can also occur. Mast cell disease can cause ulceration, fissures, and hemorrhoids, among other things. Mast cell disease can contribute to dysregulation of the menstrual cycle, causing excessive bleeding in this way. It is not unusual for mast cell patients to have GI bleeding, as well as ulceration, fissures, and hemorrhoids.
  • Sustained GI inflammation. Sustained GI inflammatory disease can cause elevated levels of platelets. Given what we know about mast cell driven GI inflammation, it is reasonable to infer that mast cell GI effects and damage may also elevate platelet levels.
  • Clot formation. If a large clot forms, it can affect the amount of platelets circulating in the blood. Some mast cell patients require central lines for regular use of IV therapies or to preserve IV access in the event of an emergency. Blood clots can form on the outside surface of the line, inside the line, or between the line and the wall of the blood vessel it is in.
  • General inflammation. Platelets are activated by a variety of molecules released when the body is inflamed for any reason. This can translate to increased levels of platelet production.
  • Allergic reactions. Platelets can be directly activated by mast cell degranulation through molecules like platelet activating factor (PAF).
  • Heparin. Heparin can cause platelet levels to increase. As I mentioned above, it can also cause platelet levels to decrease.
  • Removal of the spleen. The spleen can become very stressed and work too hard, a condition called This situation is remedied by removing the spleen. Hypersplenism occurs in aggressive systemic mastocytosis or mast cell leukemia. It is not a feature of other forms of systemic mastocytosis and I am not aware of any cases as a result of mast cell activation syndrome.
  • Glucocorticoids. In particular, prednisone is known to increase platelet counts. Prednisone and other glucocorticoids can be used for several reasons in mast cell patients.
  • Third spacing. If a lot of fluid from the bloodstream becomes trapped in tissues (third spacing), there is less fluid in the bloodstream so it makes it look like there are too many cells. As I mentioned above, this is not really a scenario where you are making too many red blood cells, it just looks like that on a blood test.

For additional reading, please visit the following posts:

Anemia of chronic inflammation

Effect of anemia on mast cells

Mast cell disease and the spleen

MCAS: Anemia and deficiencies

Mast cells, heparin and bradykinin: The effects of mast cells on the kinin-kallikrein system

MCAS: Blood, bone marrow and clotting

Third spacing

Gastrointestinal manifestations of SM: Part 1

Gastrointestinal manifestations of SM: Part 2

The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 72

The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 73

The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 75

I get asked a lot about how mast cell disease can affect common blood test results. I have broken this question up into several more manageable pieces so I can thoroughly discuss the reasons for this. The next few 107 series posts will cover how mast cell disease can affect red blood cell count; white blood cell count, including the counts of specific types of white blood cells; platelet counts; liver function tests; kidney function tests; electrolytes; clotting tests; and a few miscellaneous tests.

 

88. How does mast cell disease affect white blood cell counts?

Firstly, remember that while mast cells are technically considered white blood cells, they don’t actually live in the blood. That means that except in very severe malignant cases of aggressive systemic mastocytosis and mast cell leukemia, mast cells won’t directly contribute to white blood cell count in a blood test at all. This means that in a regular white blood cell level blood test, none of those cells are mast cells.

There are a couple of ways in which mast cell disease can cause low white blood cell counts. It can also cause low counts of certain types of white blood cells even if it doesn’t cause low white blood cell count overall.

  • Swelling of the spleen. This can happen in some forms of systemic mastocytosis, and may also happen in some patients with mast cell activation syndrome, although the reason why it happens in MCAS is not as clear. Swelling of the spleen can damage blood cells, including white blood cells, causing lower white blood cell counts. If the spleen is very stressed and working much too hard, a condition called hypersplenism, the damage to blood cells is much more pronounced. This may further lower the white blood cell count. Hypersplenism occurs in aggressive systemic mastocytosis or mast cell leukemia. It is not a feature of other forms of systemic mastocytosis and I am not aware of any cases as a result of mast cell activation syndrome.
  • Medications. Some medications for mast cell disease can cause low white blood cell count. These are not common medications, but are sometimes used, especially in patients with long term symptoms that have not responded to other medications, or where organs could potentially be damaged, like in smoldering or aggressive systemic mastocytosis, or severe mast cell activation syndrome. These include medications like cyclosporine and interferon.
  • Chemotherapy. These medications can also decrease white blood cell count. Chemotherapy is used in smoldering systemic mastocytosis, aggressive systemic mastocytosis, and mast cell leukemia. It is sometimes also used in very aggressive presentations of mast cell activation syndrome. Newer chemotherapies are more targeted and can cause fewer side effects. However, all of the chemotherapies used for mast cell disease can cause the side effect of low blood cell counts, including white blood cell count.
  • Myelofibrosis. Myelofibrosis is a myeloproliferative neoplasm that is related to systemic mastocytosis. In myelofibrosis, the bone marrow becomes filled with deposits of scar tissue so that the body cannot make blood cells correctly or in normal numbers. This can decrease white blood cell counts.
  • Excess fluid in the bloodstream (hypervolemia). In this situation, the body doesn’t actually have too few red blood cells, it just looks like it. If your body loses a lot of fluid to swelling (third spacing) and that fluid is mostly reabsorbed at once, the extra fluid in the bloodstream can make it look like there are too few red cells if they do a blood test. This can also happen if a patient receives a lot of IV fluids.

Even if the overall white blood cell count is normal, mast cell patients sometimes have low levels of certain types of white blood cells.

  • Anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis can cause basophils to be low.
  • Allergic reactions. These can also cause basophils to be low.
  • Chronic urticaria. Chronic hives and rashes can cause basophils to be low.
  • Use of corticosteroids like prednisone elevates certain types of white blood cells while suppressing others. Lymphocytes, monocytes, eosinophils and basophils can also be low from using corticosteroids like prednisone.
  • Prolonged physical stress. Mast cell disease can cause a lot of damage to the body over time, triggering a chronic stress response. This can selectively lower the amount of lymphocytes and the eosinophils in the body.
  • Autoimmune disease. Autoimmune disease often causes one type of white blood cell to be high and another to be low. Many mast cell patients have autoimmune diseases, so while this is not directly caused by mast cell disease, it often occurs in mast cell patients. For example, rheumatoid arthritis can cause low neutrophils.

There are many more ways that mast cell disease can trigger high white blood cell counts, or high amounts of certain types of white blood cells.

  • Inflammation. Any type of chronic inflammation can cause high white blood cell counts and mast cell disease causes a lot of inflammation.
  • Medications. Use of corticosteroids especially can cause high white blood cell counts. Epinephrine and beta-2 agonists like salbutamol/albuterol, used to open the airway, can also cause high white blood cell counts.
  • Autoimmune disease. Many mast cell patients have autoimmune diseases, so while this is not directly caused by mast cell disease, it often occurs in mast cell patients.

There are several instances where mast cell disease can trigger elevated levels of certain subsets of white blood cells.

  • Swelling of the spleen. I mentioned above that spleen swelling can damage blood cells, causing their levels to be low. Paradoxically, sometimes having a swollen spleen can cause lymphocytes to be high. There are several theories about why this may occur but there is no definitive answer currently.
  • GI inflammation. Chronic inflammation in the GI tract can cause the body to overproduce monocytes. Certain types of inflammatory bowel disease, like ulcerative colitis, can cause high basophils.
  • Allergies. Allergic reactions of any kind will elevate both basophils and eosinophils.
  • Mast cell activation of eosinophils. Mast cells activate eosinophils, which activate mast cells. It is a nasty cycle that causes a lot of symptoms and can be very damaging to organs affected. It is not unusual for mast cell patients to have high numbers of circulating eosinophils. It is also not unusual for mast cell patients to have higher than expected numbers of eosinophils in biopsies, especially GI biopsies. Eosinophilic GI disease also has some overlap with mast cell disease so some patients have both.
  • Mast cell activation of basophils. Basophils are closely related to mast cells and also degranulate in response to allergic triggers and during anaphylaxis.
  • Autoimmune disease. Autoimmune disease often causes one type of white blood cell to be high and another to be low. Many mast cell patients have autoimmune diseases, so while this is not directly caused by mast cell disease, it often occurs in mast cell patients. For example, lupus can cause eosinophilia.
  • Anemia. Iron deficiency is common in mast cell disease. Iron deficiency anemia can increase basophil levels.
  • Vascular inflammation. Mast cell activation has been repeatedly linked to inflammation of blood vessels. This can elevate blood monocyte level.
  • Medication. Use of corticosteroids like prednisone directly increase neutrophil levels.
  • Proliferation of myeloid cells. Overproduction of certain types of blood cells by the bone marrow, including mast cells, can elevate basophils.
  • Obesity. Obesity has been linked many times to chronic inflammation. Mast cell disease can directly cause weight gain by causing high levels of the hormone leptin. Obesity may cause high levels of monocytes.
  • Third spacing. If a lot of fluid from the bloodstream becomes trapped in tissues (third spacing), there is less fluid in the bloodstream so it makes it look like there are too many cells. As I mentioned above, this is not really a scenario where you are making too many white blood cells, it just looks like that on a blood test.

For additional reading, please visit the following posts:

Allergic effector unit: The interactions between mast cells and eosinophils

Anemia of chronic inflammation

Effect of anemia on mast cells

Explain the tests: Complete blood cell count (CBC) – White blood cell count

Explain the tests: Complete blood cell count (CBC) – High white blood cell count

Explain the tests: Complete blood cell count (CBC) – Low white blood cell count

Mast cell disease and the spleen

MCAS: Anemia and deficiencies

The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 72

The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 73

Third spacing

 

The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 74

I get asked a lot about how mast cell disease can affect common blood test results. I have broken this question up into several more manageable pieces so I can thoroughly discuss the reasons for this. The next few 107 series posts will cover how mast cell disease can affect red blood cell count; white blood cell count, including the counts of specific types of white blood cells; platelet counts; liver function tests; kidney function tests; electrolytes; clotting tests; and a few miscellaneous tests.

  1. How does mast cell disease affect red blood cell counts?

There are several ways in which mast cell disease can make red blood cell count lower.

  • Anemia of chronic inflammation. This is when chronic inflammation in the body affects the way the body absorbs and uses iron. It can result in iron deficiency. Iron is used to make hemoglobin, the molecule used by red blood cells to carry around oxygen to all the places in the body that need it. If there’s not enough iron to make hemoglobin, the body will not make a normal amount of red blood cells.
  • Vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Like I mentioned above, chronic inflammation can affect the way your body absorbs vitamins and minerals through the GI tract, and the way it uses vitamins and minerals that it does absorb. While iron deficiency is the most obvious example of this, deficiency of vitamin B12 or folate can also slow red cell production.
  • Swelling of the spleen. This can happen in some forms of systemic mastocytosis, and may also happen in some patients with mast cell activation syndrome, although the reason why it happens in MCAS is not as clear. Swelling of the spleen can damage blood cells, including red blood cells, causing lower red blood cell counts. If the spleen is very stressed and working much too hard, a condition called hypersplenism, the damage to blood cells is much more pronounced. This may further lower the red blood cell count. Hypersplenism occurs in aggressive systemic mastocytosis or mast cell leukemia. It is not a feature of other forms of systemic mastocytosis and I am not aware of any cases as a result of mast cell activation syndrome.
  • Medications. Some medications that are used to manage mast cell disease can cause low red blood cell count. Chemotherapies, including targeted chemotherapies like tyrosine kinase inhibitors, can cause low red blood cell count. Medications that specifically interfere with the immune system can do the same thing, including medications for autoimmune diseases like mycophenolate. Non steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are used by some mast cell patients to decrease production of prostaglandins. They can interfere with red blood cell production in the bone marrow and also cause hemolytic anemia, when the immune system attacks red blood cells after they are made and damages them.
  • Excessive bleeding. Mast cell disease can cause excessive bleeding in several ways. Mast cells release lots of heparin, a very potent blood thinner that decreases clotting. This makes it easier for the body to bleed. It is not unusual for mast cell patients to have unusual bruising. Bleeding in the GI tract can also occur. Mast cell disease can cause ulceration, fissures, and hemorrhoids, among other things. Mast cell disease can contribute to dysregulation of the menstrual cycle, causing excessive bleeding in this way.
  • Excessive production of other types of blood cells. In very aggressive forms of systemic mastocytosis, aggressive systemic mastocytosis or mast cell leukemia, the bone marrow is making huge amounts of mast cells. As a result, the bone marrow makes fewer cells of other types, including red blood cells. Some medications can also increase production of other blood types, causing less production of red cells. Corticosteroids can do this.
  • Excess fluid in the bloodstream (hypervolemia). In this situation, the body doesn’t actually have too few red blood cells, it just looks like it. If your body loses a lot of fluid to swelling (third spacing) and that fluid is mostly reabsorbed at once, the extra fluid in the bloodstream can make it look like there are too few red cells if they do a blood test. This can also happen if a patient receives a lot of IV fluids.

There are also a couple of scenarios where mast cell disease can make the red blood cell count higher. This is much less common.

  • Chronically low oxygen. If a person is not getting enough oxygen for a long period of time, the body will make more red blood cells in an effort to compensate for the low oxygen. This could happen in mast cell patients with poor oxygenation.
  • Third spacing. If a lot of fluid from the bloodstream becomes trapped in tissues (third spacing), there is less fluid in the bloodstream so it makes it look like there are too many cells. As I mentioned above, this is not really a scenario where you are making too many red blood cells, it just looks like that on a blood test.

For additional reading, please visit the following posts:

Anemia of chronic inflammation

Effect of anemia on mast cells

Effects of estrogen and progesterone and the role of mast cells in pregnancy

Explain the tests: Complete blood cell count (CBC) – Low red cell count

Explain the tests: Complete blood cell count (CBC) – High red cell count

Explain the tests: Complete blood cell count (CBC) – Red cell indices

Gastrointestinal manifestations of SM: Part 1

Gastrointestinal manifestations of SM: Part 2

Mast cell disease and the spleen

Mast cells, heparin and bradykinin: The effects of mast cells on the kinin-kallikrein system

MCAS: Anemia and deficiencies

MCAS: Blood, bone marrow and clotting

The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 3

The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 12

The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 19

The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 20

The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 45

The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 72

The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 73

Third spacing

The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 71

85. What is the difference between an anaphylactic reaction and an anaphylactoid reaction?

  • Anaphylaxis is an old term. It has been defined in a number of ways over time.
  • From the 1980s-mid 2000s, that term was typically reserved for cases involving an IgE allergy. If a patient had a life threatening, multisystem allergic reaction from an IgE trigger, that event was called anaphylaxis. Similar reactions that were from a trigger that was not an IgE allergy were called anaphylactoid, which literally means “like anaphylaxis.”
  • In the mid 2003, the World Allergy Organization recommended that the term “anaphylactoid” be abanded. Whereas anaphylaxis had been mostly used to describe IgE reactions, their recommendation was to call all of these events anaphylaxis regardless of whether or not they were from IgE triggers. Anaphylaxis from an IgE trigger was called “immunologic anaphylaxis” and anaphylaxis from a non-IgE trigger was called “non-immunologic anaphylaxis.”
  • These terms are still used, but many providers just use the term anaphylaxis without specifying further.
  • Unfortunately, the recommendation to stop using “anaphylactoid” has not been fully adopted, despite repeated statements from professional organizations supporting it.
  • Part of why the definition of anaphylaxis was amended to be inclusive of all triggers was to encourage more effective treatment. A significant number of providers felt that anaphylactoid described a reaction that was self limiting or that was not serious enough to require epinephrine, despite the fact that treatment should have been the same as for anaphylaxis from any trigger. Moving away from the term “anaphylactoid” helped to confer the understanding that all forms of anaphylaxis were serious, that they required adequate treatment, and that there should not be an expectation that the reaction would resolve without treatment.
  • Mast cell patients ask me often if their “anaphylaxis from mast cell disease” is really anaphylaxis or if it is an anaphylactoid reaction. Per the World Allergy Organization, the term “anaphylactoid” is obsolete, so these patients experience anaphylaxis. But some providers do not recognize this as anaphylaxis.
  • The most important thing to impress upon providers is that regardless of the terminology they prefer, mast cell reactions that are anaphylactic/anaphylactoid still require the same, aggressive treatment. Calling a reaction anaphylactoid does not make it less serious or negate the requirement for advanced treatment.
  • This is an excellent resource for anyone wanting to learn more about the treatment recommendations for anaphylaxis. There are notes about the discussion on use of “anaphylactic” and “anaphylactoid” on page 344.

 

For additional reading, please visit the following posts:

The definition of anaphylaxis

Anaphylaxis and mast cell reactions