A Cursory Look at Red Blood Cell Count
What is red blood cell count?
A red blood cell count is a test that determines the number of red blood cells in your blood. It is also referred to as erythrocyte count.
An RBC count is important because all RBCs contain hemoglobin. Hemoglobin has a high affinity for oxygen. Therefore, the number of red blood cells in your blood can affect the oxygen supply to your tissues. It is important to note that your tissues require oxygen to function.
Signs of an abnormal red blood cell count
If your red blood cell count is on the very high or low side, you could experience complications and symptoms.
Symptoms of a low red blood cell count include:
- Shortness of breath
- Weakness, dizziness, or lightheadedness, significantly when you change posture quickly
- Pale skin
- Increased heart rate
People with a high RBC count may experience the following symptoms:
- Joint pain
- Shortness of breath
- Sleep disturbance
- Itching skin, especially after a bath or a shower
- Tenderness in the soles of the feet or hands
If you experience these symptoms, your healthcare provider may order an RBC count.
What’s the essence of an RBC count?
The American Association for Clinical Chemistry reports that an RBC test is integral to a complete blood count test. A total blood count (CBC) determines the number of all blood components, such as:
- White blood cells
- Red blood cells
Hematocrit refers to the volume of red blood cells in the body. It measures the ratio of red blood cells in your blood.
Platelets are tiny cells circulating in the blood. They form blood clots that allow the healing of wounds. This, in turn, prevents excessive bleeding.
Your healthcare provider may recommend an RBC test if they suspect that you have a condition affecting your red blood cells or if they show symptoms of low blood oxygen. These could include:
- Bluish discoloration of the skin
- Irregular breathing
- Restlessness and irritability
A CBC test is often a part of a routine physical examination. It can also be an indicator of your overall health. A CBC test may also be performed before surgery.
If you’ve been diagnosed with a blood condition that may affect your RBC count, or you are taking medications that affect your RBCs, your healthcare provider may order the tests to monitor your treatment or condition. CBC tests can also be used to monitor blood infections or leukemia.
How to do an RBC count
An RBC count is a basic blood test performed at your doctor’s office. First, your healthcare provider will draw some blood from your vein. The blood is usually drawn from the inside of your elbow. After removing the blood, it will be sent to a lab for analysis.
You don’t need any special preparation for an RBC count. However, you must tell your doctor if you’re taking any medications. These include supplements or over-the-counter medications.
There is a slight risk of bruising, infection, or bleeding at the puncture site. In addition, you may feel a sharp pricking sensation or sting when the needle enters your arm.
The normal range for an RBC count
- For men, the normal RBC range is 4.7 – 6.1 million cells per microliter
- For non-pregnant women, the normal RBC range is 4.2 – 5.4 million cells per microliter
- For children, the normal RBC range is 4.0 – 5.5 million cells per microliter
What does it mean to have a higher-than-normal red blood cell count?
A higher-than-normal red blood cell count means that one has erythrocytosis. This may be due to:
- Congenital heart disease
- Cigarette smoking
- Red cell carcinoma
- Polycythemia vera
- Pulmonary fibrosis
Note that RBC count increases when a person moves to a higher altitude. One of the reasons is that there’s less oxygen in the air.
Some medications like methyldopa and gentamicin can increase your red blood cell count. Gentamicin is an antibiotic that treats bacterial infections.
High blood pressure is usually treated with methyldopa. Methyldopa relaxes the blood vessels and allows easy blood flow through the body. Ensure that you inform your doctor about any medications you’re taking.
A high red blood cell count may be due to pulmonary fibrosis, sleep apnea, and other conditions that deplete oxygen levels in the blood.
Performance-enhancing drugs may also increase blood cell counts like anabolic steroids and protein injections. In addition, kidney cancers and kidney disease can cause high red cell counts.
What does it mean to have a lower-than-normal red blood cell count?
If the number of red blood cells is lower than expected, then the likely causes may be:
- Bone marrow failure
- Internal or external bleeding
- Destruction of RBCs or hemolysis due to blood vessel injury or transfusions
- Erythropoietin deficiency
- Thyroid disorders
- Multiple myeloma
- Nutritional deficiencies, such as copper, folate, iron, iron, vitamins B-6 and B-12
Some drugs can also lower one’s RBC count. Medicines in this category include:
- Chemotherapy drugs
- Quinidine, which is efficient in the treatment of irregular heartbeats
- Chloramphenicol, used for the treatment of bacterial infections
- Hydantoins, traditionally used for the treatment of muscle spasms and epilepsy
Blood cancers affect red blood cell production and function. There are different blood types, and each has a unique impact on red blood cell count. The primary types of blood cancer are:
What happens if I have abnormal red blood cell counts?
Your healthcare provider will discuss your results with you. Sometimes, additional tests may be ordered.
The deficiency of red blood cells results in a condition known as anemia. There are different types of anemia, including:
- Iron deficiency anemia
- Sickle cell anemia
- Vitamin deficiency anemia is often due to low levels of vitamin B-12.
These anemias typically require treatment. Anemic people usually feel weak and tired. They may also experience cold feet and hands, headaches, irregular heartbeats, and dizziness.
lifestyle changes influence one’s red blood cell count. These include:
- eating healthy and avoiding vitamin deficiency
- avoid smoking
- avoid aspirin
- engage in regular exercise, which causes your body to use more oxygen
The following lifestyle changes can decrease your RBC count:
- drinking more water
- reducing your iron and red meat intake
- not smoking
- avoiding diuretics, like alcohol or caffeine
Dietary changes can affect your RBC count.
you may boost your RBC count with the following dietary changes:
- adding leafy green vegetables, peas, dried beans, and iron-rich foods to your diet.
- Increasing copper in your diet with foods such as poultry, shellfish, and nuts.
Increasing your intake of vitamin B-12 with foods such as meats, eggs, and fortified cereals.
Ifiokobong Ene is a Medical Physiologist, and a freelance medical writer. Ifiok brings his years of medical research experience to help consistently create high-quality, and engaging articles and products that uphold the highest medical standards. He is dedicated to making health and wellness information available, actionable, and understandable so that readers can make the best decisions about their health.