The Biomarker Handbook is a curated series that seeks to provide readers with insights on each biomarker we cover in our blood test packages and its relation to our body.
Red Blood Cells (RBCs) are a highly important component of the human body and without them, we would perish.
With the ability to influence all functions of our body, they are undoubtedly a major part of what is literally our “life’s blood.”
Just what are RBCs and how do we test for them?
Well, here is all you need to know about the importance of RBCs, their functions, and what to do if your RBC levels are abnormal.
What are Red Blood Cells?
To start with their unique structure, RBCs are roundish flat cells with an indented center. Their odd shape is meant to maximize the cell’s surface area for efficient diffusion of oxygen and carbon dioxide.
The main function of RBCs is to distribute oxygen throughout the body, as well as to remove the carbon dioxide waste from spent oxygen. This is done using hemoglobin, which RBCs develop as they grow.
Additionally, it is also hemoglobin which gives RBCs their color. Prior to their maturing and producing it, the cells are not red, but rather, a straw color.
RBCs are produced in the bone marrow, which is the spongy substance inside our bones. They live for around 120 days and need to reproduce constantly to replace old cells that die.
RBCs combine with white blood cells, platelets, and plasma to make up your blood supply, which is essential to our bodily functions.
Types and Variations of Red Blood Cells
Although there are variations on the structure and appearance of RBCs throughout their lifespan, there may only be one type of RBC in the human body.
In the beginning, when RBCs are produced in the bone marrow, they initially contain a nucleus. However, as the cell matures and begins producing hemoglobin, the nucleus destroys itself and the cell turns red.
Mature RBCs are called erythrocytes and use ion pumps in their membranes to maintain the osmolarity necessary for them to function. As they near the end of their lifespan, these ion pumps stop functioning optimally, at which time they circulate through the spleen, and are destroyed and disposed of.
Testing for Red Blood Cells
Doctors commonly perform RBC testing by using a simple blood test in which a blood sample is drawn and analyzed in a lab. This is called a hematocrit test, which measures the volume of RBCs in the body. Hematocrit tests are most often given as part of a Complete Blood Count (CBC) test, in which all components of the blood are analyzed.
This test is used as a means of tracking levels of RBCs, which can then be used to evaluate overall health, as well as to determine any conditions which may arise from abnormal levels of RBCs.
The Frequency of Tracking for Red Blood Cells
Hematocrit testing should be performed during an annual checkup, or whenever you notice symptoms linked to an improper RBC count.
Additionally, this test should be performed more often if the subject is on any medications which may affect their RBC count. Testing is also vital in monitoring monitor conditions which affect RBC counts, such as leukemia or a blood disease.
It is also advised that you test your RBC levels done if you have prolonged symptoms of anemia, such as dizziness or a rapid heartbeat.
What action to take if your Red Blood Cell Count is abnormal
Due to the critical nature of the RBC’s functions, an abnormal RBC count should not be taken lightly.
One of the most common conditions related to RBC count is anaemia or low RBC count. Anemia can be characterized by:
- Bluish skin tone
- Rapid heartbeat
However, there is also a condition called polycythaemia, which is when the body’s concentration of RBCs is too high.
And, polycythaemia is characterized by:
- High blood pressure
- A rosy, or “ruddy” complexion
- Muscle soreness
- Ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
- Blurred vision
Most of the time, polycythaemia is a genetic condition, although it can also be caused by hypoxia (low blood oxygen level), or from certain kinds of tumors.
If you have symptoms of anemia, consider adding foods to your diet which contain high amounts of iron, copper and vitamin B12. Even if you are unable to add foods such as eggs, spinach, and nuts to your diet, you should consider using a vitamin supplement containing iron, B12, and copper.
A change in lifestyle could also be the answer. Smoking, the regular use of aspirin, and a lack of exercise can all negatively affect the body’s RBC production.
However, anemia can also be a symptom of such diseases as leukemia, which is cancer that prevents the bone marrow from producing platelets or adequate red blood cells.
Thus, symptoms of anemia could be a sign for you to visit your doctor for a hematocrit test. Particularly so if your anemia doesn’t respond to dietary or lifestyle changes.
However, if you show signs of polycythaemia, treatments can include:
- Taking low dose aspirin to guard against blood clots
- Removing blood via phlebotomy
- Using a medication designed to lower RBC count
- Exercising more to increase blood flow (polycythaemia causes the blood to thicken, which prevents it from circulating as well)
- Avoiding tobacco, which constricts blood vessels
Since polycythaemia is usually caused by genetics, these are the most common treatments for it.
However, if it is a newly acquired condition, care should be taken to verify the cause.
Or, in a worst-case scenario, it could mean cancer, so don’t take symptoms of it lightly!
If you’re interested in learning more about what you can do to increase your red blood cell count, take a look at our lifestyle article here!
Interested in other biomarkers, check out the rest of The Biomarker Handbook.
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