Red Blood Cells

Author: OncoLink Team
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What is a red blood cell?

A red blood cell is the part of your blood that makes it red. Hemoglobin, a protein that makes up red blood cells, carries oxygen from the lungs to the cells in your body. Red blood cells also move carbon dioxide back to the lungs where it is exhaled. 

Red blood cells are made in the bone marrow, which is located inside your bones. They live for about 120 days. Eating foods rich in iron and vitamins, such as E, B2, B12 and B3, helps to maintain healthy red blood cells. 

A normal red blood cell count is between 12 to 18 g/dL. Your red blood cell count can be checked by drawing blood for a complete blood count. A complete blood count measures the levels of the components that make up your blood. 

What causes a low red blood cell count?

There are a number of medical issues that can lead to a lower than normal red blood cell count, which is also called anemia. There are many types and causes of anemia. Treatment of cancer and cancer itself can lead to anemia. Some cancers can lead to internal bleeding, which leads to blood loss that can result in anemia. Cancers that start in the bone marrow, such as leukemia, can interfere with normal blood production. 

Treatments for cancer can also lead to anemia. Chemotherapy and radiation can affect not just cancer cells, but also healthy cells. Because of this, both treatments can lead to anemia. 

If you have anemia, you may feel very tired, look pale or feel short of breath.

Who needs a red blood cell transfusion?

If your hemoglobin level is well below normal (often below 8g/dL), you may be given a blood transfusion. If you have a heart condition, your care team may choose to give you a blood transfusion if the hemoglobin is low, but not below 8g/dL. Blood transfusions are also used during surgery when the procedure results in blood loss. 

The transfusion increases the number of red blood cells in your body. These cells can then help carry more oxygen throughout your body. This will give you more energy and will help resolves symptoms such as pale color and shortness of breath.

How is a red blood cell transfusion given?

Prior to receiving a blood transfusion, you need to have your blood type checked, which is done by having your blood drawn. Blood type is determined by which antigens are found on your blood. Blood that you receive will be checked to make sure it is a match for your blood. This is done in a laboratory that specializes in blood products. 

Red blood cells are given through an intravenous line. The infusion is started slowly and your vital signs (temperature, heart rate, oxygenation, and blood pressure) are checked often to make sure that you are not having a reaction to the transfusion. The rate that the blood is infusing may be increased if you are not having a reaction. A blood transfusion can take a few hours. 

What are the risks of having a blood transfusion?

Although not common, there are risks to having a red blood cell transfusion. These include infection and reactions. If you start to have itching, chills, and new pain, nausea, trouble breathing or your throat feels tight, let your nurse know right away. 

The blood you receive is collected from donors. All donated blood is tested for viruses and bacteria. The risk of catching a virus or other infection from a blood transfusion is very low. This includes HIV and Hepatitis B and C. 

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