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Discover the fascinating role of neutrophils in the immune system and how they contribute to inflammation and disease prevention.

USMLE Guide: Neutrophils


Neutrophils are a type of white blood cell that plays a critical role in the immune system's defense against infections. Also known as polymorphonuclear leukocytes (PMNs), neutrophils are the most abundant type of white blood cell and are part of the innate immune response. This USMLE guide aims to provide a comprehensive overview of neutrophils, their functions, and their clinical significance.

Structure and Characteristics

  • Neutrophils are granulocytes, which means their cytoplasm contains granules that can be seen under a microscope.
  • These cells have a multi-lobed nucleus, giving them a segmented or "polymorphonuclear" appearance.
  • Neutrophils are typically 10-12 micrometers in diameter.
  • They have a short lifespan, usually only surviving for a few days in the bloodstream before migrating into tissues.


  1. Phagocytosis: Neutrophils are highly efficient phagocytes, capable of engulfing and destroying bacteria, fungi, and other foreign particles. They use various receptors to recognize pathogens and opsonins that coat these invaders.
  2. Release of antimicrobial substances: Neutrophils release toxic granules containing enzymes, defensins, and reactive oxygen species to kill engulfed pathogens.
  3. Formation of neutrophil extracellular traps (NETs): In response to certain infections, neutrophils can release their DNA and antimicrobial proteins, forming NETs that trap and kill pathogens extracellularly.
  4. Recruitment of other immune cells: Neutrophils release chemotactic factors that attract other immune cells to the site of infection or inflammation.
  5. Modulation of immune response: Neutrophils can interact with other immune cells and influence the overall immune response, both innate and adaptive.

Clinical Significance

  1. Neutrophilia: Increased neutrophil counts may indicate infection, inflammation, stress, tissue necrosis, or certain types of cancer.
  2. Neutropenia: Decreased neutrophil counts can result from bone marrow disorders, viral infections, drug toxicity, or autoimmune diseases, making individuals susceptible to severe infections.
  3. Neutrophil dysfunction: Genetic disorders affecting neutrophil function can lead to recurrent and severe bacterial or fungal infections. Examples include chronic granulomatous disease (CGD) and leukocyte adhesion deficiency (LAD).
  4. Neutrophilic leukemias: Certain leukemias, such as acute myeloid leukemia (AML), can involve abnormal proliferation of neutrophil precursors, leading to an increased number of immature neutrophils in the blood.
  5. Neutrophil extracellular trap-associated diseases: Dysregulated NET formation is associated with autoimmune diseases, such as systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), and thrombotic disorders.


Neutrophils are crucial components of the immune system, providing the body's first line of defense against infections. Their ability to phagocytose pathogens, release antimicrobial substances, and recruit other immune cells is essential for effective immune responses. Understanding neutrophil function and the clinical implications of their abnormalities is vital for medical professionals preparing for the USMLE exams.

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