RBC count

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Definition

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

Alternative Names

Erythrocyte count; Red blood cell count; Anemia - RBC count

How the Test is Performed

A blood sample is needed.

How to Prepare for the Test

No special preparation is necessary.

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 a complete blood count (CBC) test.

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

Other conditions that may require an RBC count are:

Normal Results

Normal RBC ranges are:

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

The ranges 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 health care provider about the meaning of your specific test results.

What Abnormal Results Mean

Higher than normal numbers of RBCs may be due to:

Your RBC count will increase for several weeks when you are in 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
  • Too little iron, , folic acid, , or in the diet
  • Too much water in the body (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 person 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 lightheaded
  • Hematoma (blood buildup 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; 2015:chap 158.

Goljan EF. Red blood cell disorders. In: Goljan EF, ed. Rapid Review Pathology. 4th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2014:chap 12.

Version Info

  • Last reviewed on 1/31/2016
  • Laura J. Martin, MD, MPH, ABIM Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Hospice and Palliative Medicine, Atlanta, GA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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