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.
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:
- Disease that damages kidney blood vessels (Alport syndrome)
- White blood cell cancer (Waldenstrom macroglobulinemia)
- Disorder in which red blood cells break down earlier than normal (paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria)
- Bone marrow disorder in which the marrow is replaced by scar tissue (myelofibrosis)
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:
- 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 (for example, 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 are in a higher altitude.
Drugs that can increase the RBC count include:
Lower-than-normal numbers of RBCs may be due to:
- 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
- Bone marrow cancer called multiple myeloma
- Too little iron, copper, folic acid, vitamin B6, or vitamin B12 in the diet
- Too much water in the body (overhydration)
Drugs that can decrease the RBC count include:
- Chemotherapy drugs
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)
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.
Reviewed By: 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.