All content on Lab Tests Online has been reviewed and approved by our Editorial Review Board.
The Test Sample
What is being tested?
Red blood cells (RBCs), also called erythrocytes, are cells that circulate in the blood and carry oxygen throughout the body. The RBC count totals the number of red blood cells that are present in a person's sample of blood. It is one test among several that is included in a complete blood count (CBC) and is often used in the general evaluation of a person's health.
Blood is made up of a few different types of cells suspended in fluid called plasma. In addition to RBCs, there are white blood cells (WBCs) and platelets. These cells are produced in the bone marrow and are released into the bloodstream as they mature. RBCs typically make up about 40% of the blood volume. RBCs contain hemoglobin, a protein that binds to oxygen and enables RBCs to carry oxygen from the lungs to the tissues and organs of the body. RBCs also help transport a small portion of carbon dioxide, a waste product of cell metabolism, from those tissues and organs back to the lungs where it is expelled.
The typical lifespan of an RBC is 120 days; thus the bone marrow must continually produce new RBCs to replace those that age and degrade or are lost through bleeding. There are a number of conditions that can affect the production of new RBCs and/or their lifespan, in addition to those conditions that may result in significant bleeding. These conditions may lead to a rise or drop in the RBC count.
Changes in the RBC count usually mirror changes in the hematocrit and hemoglobin level. When the values of the RBC count, hematocrit, and hemoglobin decrease below the established reference interval, the person is said to be anemic. When the RBC and hemoglobin values increase above the normal range, the person is said to be polycythemic. Too few RBCs can affect the amount of oxygen reaching the tissues, while too many RBCs can cause decreased blood flow and related problems.
How is the sample collected for testing?
A blood sample is obtained by inserting a needle into a vein in the arm or by collecting blood from a fingerstick (for children and adults) or a heelstick (for newborns).
NOTE: If undergoing medical tests makes you or someone you care for anxious, embarrassed, or even difficult to manage, you might consider reading one or more of the following articles: Coping with Test Pain, Discomfort, and Anxiety, Tips on Blood Testing, Tips to Help Children through Their Medical Tests, and Tips to Help the Elderly through Their Medical Tests.
Another article, Follow That Sample, provides a glimpse at the collection and processing of a blood sample and throat culture.
Is any test preparation needed to ensure the quality of the sample?
No test preparation is needed.