What could be causing low serum haptoglobin in my patient with no evidence of hemolysis?


There are many causes of low serum haptoglobin besides hemolysis, including1-4:

  • Cirrhosis of the liver
  • Disseminated ovarian carcinomatosis
  • Pulmonary sarcoidosis
  • Elevated estrogen states
  • Repetitive physical exercise
  • Hemodilution
  • Blood transfusions
  • Drugs (eg, oral contraceptives, chlorpromazine, indomethacin, isoniazid, nitrofurantoin, quinidine, and streptomycin)
  • Iron deficiency anemia
  • Megaloblastic anemia (by destruction of megaloblastic RBC precursors in the bone marrow)
  • Congenital causes

Less well-known is that congenital haptoglobin deficiency (“anhaptoglobinemia”) may not be so rare in the general population at a prevalence of 1% among whites and 4% among African-Americans (>30% in blacks of West African origin)3. Measurement of serum hemopexin, another plasma protein that binds heme, may help distinguish between this condition and acquired hypohaptoglobinemia— in the absence of hemolysis, hemopexin levels should remain unchanged3,5.

Final Fun Fact: Did you know that serum haptoglobin is often low during the first 6 months of life?


  1. Shih AWY, McFarane A, Verhovsek M. Haptoglobin testing in hemolysis: measurement and interpretation. Am J Hematol 2014;89: 443-47. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24809098
  2. Sritharan V, Bharadwaj VP, Venkatesan K, et al. Dapsone induced hypohaptoglobinemia in lepromatous leprosy patients. Internat J Leprosy 1981;307-310. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7198620
  3. Delanghe J, Langlois M, De Buyzere M, et al. Congenital anhaptoglobinemia versus acquired hypohaptoglobinemia. Blood 1998;9: 3524. http://www.bloodjournal.org/content/bloodjournal/91/9/3524.full.pdf
  4. Haptoglobin blood test. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/003634.htm. Accessed August 6, 2017.
  5. Smith A, McCulloh RJ. Hemopexin and haptoglobin: allies against heme toxicity from hemoglobin not contenders. Front. Physiol 2015;6:187. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4485156/pdf/fphys-06-00187.pdf


In collaboration with Kris Olson, MD, MPH, Mass General Hospital, Boston, MA

What could be causing low serum haptoglobin in my patient with no evidence of hemolysis?

What is the significance of Howell-Jolly bodies in the peripheral smear of my patient with a spleen who presents with pneumonia?

Howell-Jolly bodies (HJBs, Figure) are often indicative of asplenia (either post-splenectomy or congenital absence) or hyposplenism associated with a variety of conditions, including  sickle cell disease, autoimmune disorders, celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease (particularly ulcerative colitis), HIV, cirrhosis, primary pulmonary hypertension, splenic irradiation, amyloidosis, sarcoidosis, bone marrow transplantation, and high-dose corticosteroid therapy1-4.

Patients with pneumonia and HJBs on peripheral smear may be hyposplenic and at risk of potentially serious infections, predominantly caused by encapsulated bacteria eg, Streptococcus pneumoniae, Haemophilus influenzae and Neisseria meningitidis3.  Such patients should be immunized against these organisms, including sequential receipt of both conjugated and polysaccharide pneumococcal vaccines3,5.

HJBs are nuclear remnants in circulating mature red blood cells which are usually pitted by the spleen under normal physiological conditions. 

Final Fun Pearl:  Did you know that  HJBs were named after Henry Howell, an American physiologist who pioneered the use of heparin as an anti-coagulant and Justin Jolly, a French hematologist who was among the first to film mitotic activity in cells?


Figure. Howell-Jolly body in an RBC. Photo courtesy of Michael S. Abers, MD

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  1. Di Sabatino, A, Carsetti R, Corazza G. Post-splenectomy and hyposplenic states. Lancet 2011;378:86–97. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21474172
  2. Brousse, V, Buffet P, Rees D. The spleen and sickle cell disease: the sick(led) spleen. Br J Haematol 2014;166: 165–176. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24862308
  3. Mathew H, Dittus C, Malek A, Negroiu A. Howell-Jolly bodies on peripheral smear leading to the diagnosis of congenital hyposplenism in a patient with septic shock. Clin Case Rep 2015;3:714-717. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4551333
  4. Ryan FP, Smart RC, Holdsworth CD, et al. Hyposplenism in inflammatory bowel disease 1978;19:50-55. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/624506
  5. Kuchar E, Miśkiewicz K , Karlikowska M. A review of guidance on immunization in persons with defective or deficient splenic function. Br J Haematol 2015; 171:683-94.  http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/bjh.13660/full

Contributed by Katarzyna Orlewska, Medical Student, Warszawski Uniwersytet Medyczny, Poland

What is the significance of Howell-Jolly bodies in the peripheral smear of my patient with a spleen who presents with pneumonia?