red blood cell indices

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Red Blood Cell Indices



Red blood cell indices are measurements that describe the size and oxygen-carrying protein (hemoglobin) content of red blood cells. The indices are used to help in the differential diagnosis of anemia. They are also called red cell absolute values or erythrocyte indices.


Anemia includes a variety of conditions with the same outcome: a person's blood cannot carry as much oxygen as it should. A healthy person has an adequate number of correctly sized red blood cells that contain enough hemoglobin to carry sufficient oxygen to all the body's tissues. An anemic person has red blood cells that are either too small or too few in number. As a result, the heart and lungs must work harder to make up for the lack of oxygen delivered to the tissues by the blood.
Anemia is caused by many different diseases or disorders. The first step in finding the cause is to determine what type of anemia the person has. Red blood cell indices help to classify the anemias.


Certain prescription medications may affect the test results. These drugs include zidovudine (Retrovir), phenytoin (Dilantin), and azathioprine (Imuran).



Anemia has several general causes: blood loss; a drop in production of red blood cells; or a rise in the number of red blood cells destroyed. Blood loss can result from severe hemorrhage or a chronic slow bleed, such as the result of an accident or an ulcer. Lack of iron, vitamin B12, or folic acid in the diet, as well as certain chronic diseases, lower the number of red blood cells produced by the bone marrow. Inherited disorders affecting hemoglobin, severe reactions to blood transfusions, prescription medications, or poisons can cause red blood cells to burst (hemolyze) well before the end of their usual 120-day lifespan.
Anemia of any type affects the results of one or more of the common blood tests. These tests are the hematocrit, hemoglobin, and red blood cell count. The hematocrit is a measure of red blood cell mass, or how much space in the blood is occupied by red blood cells. The hemoglobin test is a measure of how much hemoglobin protein is in the blood. The red blood cell count (RBC) measures the number of red blood cells present in the blood. Red blood cell indices are additional measurements of red blood cells based on the relationship of these three test results.
The relationships between the hematocrit, the hemoglobin level, and the RBC are converted to red blood cell indices through mathematical formulas. These formulas were worked out and first applied to the classification of anemias by Maxwell Wintrobe in 1934.
The indices include these measurements: mean corpuscular volume (MCV); mean corpuscular hemoglobin (MCH); mean corpuscular hemoglobin concentration (MCHC); and red cell distribution width (RDW). They are usually calculated by an automated instrument as part of a complete blood count (CBC). Indices are covered by insurance when medically necessary. Results are available the same day that the blood is drawn or the following day.

Mean corpuscular volume (mcv)

MCV is the index most often used. It measures the average volume of a red blood cell by dividing the hematocrit by the RBC. The MCV categorizes red blood cells by size. Cells of normal size are called normocytic, smaller cells are microcytic, and larger cells are macrocytic. These size categories are used to classify anemias. Normocytic anemias have normal-sized cells and a normal MCV; microcytic anemias have small cells and a decreased MCV; and macrocytic anemias have large cells and an increased MCV. Under a microscope, stained red blood cells with a high MCV appear larger than cells with a normal or low MCV.

Mean corpuscular hemoglobin concentration (mchc)

The MCHC measures the average concentration of hemoglobin in a red blood cell. This index is calculated by dividing the hemoglobin by the hematocrit. The MCHC categorizes red blood cells according to their concentration of hemoglobin. Cells with a normal concentration of hemoglobin are called normochromic; cells with a lower than normal concentration are called hypochromic. Because there is a physical limit to the amount of hemoglobin that can fit in a cell, there is no hyperchromic category.
Just as MCV relates to the size of the cells, MCHC relates to the color of the cells. Hemoglobin contains iron, which gives blood its characteristic red color. When examined under a microscope, normal red blood cells that contain a normal amount of hemoglobin stain pinkish red with a paler area in the center. These normochromic cells have a normal MCHC. Cells with too little hemoglobin are lighter in color with a larger pale area in the center. These hypochromic cells have a low MCHC. Anemias are categorized as hypochromic or normochromic according to the MCHC index.

Mean corpuscular hemoglobin (mch)

The average weight of hemoglobin in a red blood cell is measured by the MCH. The formula for this index is the sum of the hemoglobin multiplied by 10 and divided by the RBC. MCH values usually rise or fall as the MCV is increased or decreased.

Red cell distribution width (rdw)

The RDW measures the variation in size of the red blood cells. Usually red blood cells are a standard size. Certain disorders, however, cause a significant variation in cell size.

Obtaining the blood sample

The RBC indices test requires 0.17-24 oz (5-7 ml) of blood. A healthcare worker ties a tourniquet on the person's upper arm, locates a vein in the inner elbow region, and inserts a needle into that vein. Vacuum action draws the blood through the needle into an attached tube. Collection of the sample takes only a few minutes.


The doctor should check to see if the patient is taking any medications that may affect test results. The patient does not need to fast before the test.


Aftercare consists of routine care of the area around the puncture mark. Pressure is applied for a few seconds and the wound is covered with a bandage.


The primary risk is mild dizziness and the possibility of a bruise or swelling in the area where the blood was drawn. The patient can apply moist warm compresses.

Normal results

Normal results for red blood cell indices are as follows:
  • MCV 82-98 fl (femtoliters)
  • MCHC 31-37 g/dl
  • MCH 26-34 pg (picograms)
  • RDW 11.5-14.5%.

Abnormal results

The category into which a person's anemia is placed based on the indices provides a significant clue as to the cause of the anemia, but further testing is needed to confirm a specific diagnosis.
The most common causes of macrocytic anemia (high MCV) are vitamin B12 and folic acid deficiencies. Lack of iron in the diet, thalassemia (a type of hereditary anemia), and chronic illness are the most common causes of microcytic anemia (low MCV). Normocytic anemia (normal MCV) can be caused by kidney and liver disease, bone marrow disorders, or excessive bleeding or hemolysis of the red blood cells.
Lack of iron in the diet and thalassemia are the most common causes of hypochromic anemia (low MCHC). Normocytic anemias are usually also normochromic and share the same causes (normal MCHC).

Key terms

Anemia — A variety of conditions in which a person's blood can't carry as much oxygen as it should due to a decreased number or size of red blood cells.
Hypochromic — A descriptive term applied to a red blood cell with a decreased concentration of hemoglobin.
Macrocytic — A descriptive term applied to a larger than normal red blood cell.
Mean corpuscular hemoglobin (MCH) — A measurement of the average weight of hemoglobin in a red blood cell.
Mean corpuscular hemoglobin concentration (MCHC) — The measurement of the average concentration of hemoglobin in a red blood cell.
Mean corpuscular volume (MCV) — A measure of the average volume of a red blood cell.
Microcytic — A descriptive term applied to a smaller than normal red blood cell.
Normochromic — A descriptive term applied to a red blood cell with a normal concentration of hemoglobin.
Normocytic — A descriptive term applied to a red blood cell of normal size.
Red blood cell indices — Measurements that describe the size and hemoglobin content of red blood cells.
Red cell distribution width (RDW) — A measure of the variation in size of red blood cells.
The RDW is increased in anemias caused by deficiencies of iron, vitamin B12, or folic acid. Abnormal hemoglobins, such as in sickle cell anemia, can change the shape of red blood cells as well as cause them to hemolyze. The abnormal shape and the cell fragments resulting from hemolysis increase the RDW. Conditions that cause more immature cells to be released into the bloodstream, such as severe blood loss, will increase the RDW. The larger size of immature cells creates a distinct size variation.



Pagana, Kathleen Deska, and Timothy James Pagana, editors. Mosby's Manual of Diagnostic and Laboratory Tests. St. Louis: Mosby, Inc., 1998.


 (pl. indexes, in´dices) (L.)
1. the numerical ratio of measurement of any part in comparison with a fixed standard.
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bleeding index any of various methods of assessing bleeding in the gingival sulcus before or after treatment.
body mass index (BMI) the weight in kilograms divided by the square of the height in meters, a measure of body fat that gives an indication of nutritional status.
cardiac index cardiac output corrected for body size.
cephalic index 100 times the maximum breadth of the skull divided by its maximum length.
citation index an index listing all publications appearing in a set of source publications (e.g., articles in a defined group of journals) that cite a given publication in their bibliographies.
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erythrocyte indices the mean corpuscular volume, mean corpuscular hemoglobin, and mean corpuscular hemoglobin concentration. These are all useful for evaluating anemias because they provide information on the size of the erythrocytes and the concentration of hemoglobin. Called also red cell or red blood cell indices.
glycemic index a ranking of foods based on the response of postprandial blood sugar levels as compared with a reference food, usually either white bread or glucose. See table.
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leukopenic index a fall of 1000 or more in the total leukocyte count within 1.5 hours after ingestion of a given food; it indicates allergic hypersensitivity to that food.
index Medicus a monthly publication of the national library of medicine in which the world's leading biomedical literature is indexed by author and subject.
opsonic index a measure of opsonic activity determined by the ratio of the number of microorganisms phagocytized by normal leukocytes in the presence of serum from an individual infected by the microorganism, to the number phagocytized in serum from a normal individual.
phagocytic index any arbitrary measure of the ability of neutrophils to ingest native or opsonized particles determined by various assays; it reflects either the average number of particles ingested or the rate at which particles are cleared from the blood or culture medium.
red blood cell indices (red cell indices) erythrocyte indices.
refractive index the refractive power of a medium compared with that of air (assumed to be 1).
short increment sensitivity index (SISI) a hearing test in which randomly spaced, 0.5-second tone bursts are superimposed at 1- to 5-decibel increments in intensity on a carrier tone having the same frequency and an intensity of 20 decibels above the speech recognition threshold.
therapeutic index originally, the ratio of the maximum tolerated dose to the minimum curative dose; now defined as the ratio of the median lethal dose (LD50) to the median effective dose (ED50). It is used in assessing the safety of a drug.

red blood cell indices

a series of mathematical parameters that characterize the red cell population in terms of volume, hemoglobin mass, and hemoglobin concentration. Derived mathematically from the red cell count, hemoglobin, and hematocrit values, the indices are useful in making differential diagnoses of several kinds of anemia. The values reported are the mean cell hemoglobin, the mean cell hemoglobin concentration, the mean cell volume, and the red cell distribution width.

e·ryth·ro·cyte in·di·ces

(ĕ-rith'rŏ-sīt in'di-sēz)
Calculations for determining the average size, hemoglobin content, and concentration of hemoglobin in red blood cells, specifically mean cell volume, mean cell hemoglobin, and mean cell hemoglobin concentration.
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