When Your Spleen Doesn’t Function

The spleen plays an important role in your heath by helping your body fight infection. People who don’t have a spleen or who have a spleen that doesn’t work well are at risk for serious infection. When infection occurs, early treatment is key.

Am I at Risk?

Survivors who received high doses of radiation to the spleen or who have currently active chronic graft-versus-host disease (as a result of a bone marrow or stem cell transplant) are at risk for having a spleen that doesn’t function well. These people, as well as those who had their spleen removed, are at risk for serious infection.

What Are Signs of Infection?

Check with your doctor if you have any of these signs of infection:

  • fever
  • unusual tiredness
  • muscle aches
  • chills
  • headache
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • stomach pain

If your fever is 101°F (38.3° C) or higher you should:

  • Call your doctor or go to the emergency room, even if you are already taking antibiotics.
  • Tell the doctor that you don’t have a functioning spleen.
  • Tell the doctor all the symptoms that you are having.
  • Have a blood sample taken for blood count and culture.
  • Receive a strong antibiotic by shot into a vein or muscle, at least until the results of the blood work come back.

How Can I Prevent Infection?

If you had your spleen removed or are at risk for having a spleen that doesn’t work well, talk with your doctor about these ways to help prevent getting an infection.

Get Vaccinated

Check with your doctor to find out if you have had, or need, a booster of the pneumococcal, meningococcal, and HIB vaccines. Many doctors also suggest the flu vaccine to help prevent bacterial infections that can occur as a complication of flu. Vaccines can help prevent infections, but they are not 100% effective.

Take Antibiotics

Antibiotics are sometimes prescribed to help prevent serious bacterial infection. Some doctors will prescribe daily antibiotic pills, some will give you a prescription to have on hand to fill at the first sign of infection, and others will prescribe them only if you are going to be in an area where it will be hard to obtain medical care.

Seek Medical Care Early

Even if you are taking antibiotics, it’s still crucial that you see a doctor right away if you develop fever, chills, or other signs of infection. Waiting even a few hours after symptoms begin can be very dangerous because bacterial infections can worsen quickly.

Take Other Precautions

People who don’t have a functioning spleen are also at risk for problems with animal, human, and tick bites, as well as for problems with malaria.

  • Animal and Human Bites can result in serious bacterial infection. If you receive a bite that breaks the skin, go to the doctor right away for medical care and treatment with antibiotics.
  • Deer Ticks can transmit a germ called Babesia (this is not the germ that causes Lyme disease). When going outside in areas with ticks, where protective clothing and use insect repellant. If you get a tick bite, remove the tick and talk with your doctor about what to do.
  • Malaria is common in certain parts of the world. If you travel to an area where it occurs, ask your doctor for anti-malarial medicine before you go. During travel, use insect repellant and other measures to prevent malaria, such as netting and protective clothing.

What Should I Talk with My Doctor About

Be sure to tell your doctors, dentist, and other health care providers that you do not have a functioning spleen.

Also, talk with your doctor about wearing a medical alert bracelet or necklace so that medical workers will know that you don’t have a functioning spleen in the event of an emergency where you are unable to communicate.

Along these lines, also carry a wallet card that provides guidelines for to how manage a fever in people who don’t have a functioning spleen.

Read more about Spleen Health

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