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RBC count

An RBC count is a blood test that measures how many red blood cells (RBCs) you have.

RBCs contain hemoglobin , which carries oxygen. How much oxygen your body tissues get depends on how many RBCs you have and how well they work.

Red blood cell production
Red blood cell production

Alternative Names

Erythrocyte count; Red blood cell count

How the Test is Performed

A blood sample is needed.

How to Prepare for the Test

No special preparation is necessary for adults.

How the Test will Feel

When the needle is inserted to draw blood, some people feel moderate pain. Others feel only a prick or stinging. Afterward, there may be some throbbing or a slight bruise. This soon goes away.

Why the Test is Performed

The RBC count is almost always part of the CBC (complete blood count) test.

The test can help diagnose different kinds of anemia (low number of RBCs) and other conditions affecting red blood cells.

Additional conditions under which an RBC count may be performed:

Normal Results

Normal RBC range is:

  • Male: 4.7 to 6.1 million cells per microliter (cells/mcL)
  • Female: 4.2 to 5.4 million cells/mcL

The examples above are common measurements for results of these tests. Normal value ranges may vary slightly among different laboratories. Some labs use different measurements or test different samples. Talk to your doctor about the meaning of your specific test results.

What Abnormal Results Mean

Higher-than-normal numbers of RBCs may be due to:

  • Cigarette smoking
  • Problem with heart's structure and function that is present at birth (congenital heart disease )
  • Failure of the right side of the heart (cor pulmonale )
  • Dehydration (such as from severe diarrhea)
  • Kidney tumor (renal cell carcinoma)
  • Low blood oxygen level (hypoxia)
  • Scarring or thickening of the lungs (pulmonary fibrosis )
  • Bone marrow disease that causes abnormal increase in RBCs (polycythemia vera )

Your RBC count will increase for several weeks when you move to a higher altitude.

Drugs that can increase the RBC count include:

  • Gentamicin
  • Methyldopa

Lower-than-normal numbers of RBCs may be due to:

  • Anemia
  • Bleeding
  • Bone marrow failure (for example, from radiation, toxins, or tumor)
  • Deficiency of a hormone called erythropoietin (caused by kidney disease)
  • RBC destruction (hemolysis ) due to transfusion, blood vessel injury, or other cause
  • Leukemia
  • Malnutrition
  • Bone marrow cancer called multiple myeloma
  • Nutrition deficiencies of iron, copper , folic acid, vitamin B6 , or vitamin B12
  • Overhydration
  • Pregnancy

Drugs that can decrease the RBC count include:

  • Chemotherapy drugs
  • Chloramphenicol
  • Hydantoins
  • Quinidine

Risks

There is very little risk involved with having your blood taken. Veins and arteries vary in size from one patient to another and from one side of the body to the other. Taking blood from some people may be more difficult than from others.

Other risks associated with having blood drawn are slight, but may include:

  • Excessive bleeding
  • Fainting or feeling light-headed
  • Hematoma (blood accumulating under the skin)
  • Infection (a slight risk any time the skin is broken)

References

Bunn HF. Approach to the anemias. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 161.

Mathur SC, Schexneider KI, Hutchison RE. Hematopoiesis. In: McPherson RA, Pincus MR, eds. Henry's Clinical Diagnosis and Management by Laboratory Methods. 22nd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 31.

Updated: 2/24/2014

Todd Gersten, MD, Hematology/Oncology, Florida Cancer Specialists & Research Institute, Wellington, FL. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.


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