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.
How the Test is Performed
A blood sample is needed.
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.
How to Prepare for the Test
No special preparation is necessary.
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.
There is 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
- Multiple punctures to locate veins
- Hematoma (blood buildup under the skin)
- Infection (a slight risk any time the skin is broken)
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
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:
Bunn HF. Approach to the anemias. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 25th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 158.
Chernecky CC, Berger BJ. Red blood cell (RBC) – blood. In: Chernecky CC, Berger BJ, eds. Laboratory Tests and Diagnostic Procedures. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2013:961-962.