What Does a Low Red Blood Cell Count Mean?

By Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrehrenfeld
May 15, 2019

Ask your doctor “What does a low red blood cell count mean,” and you will likely hear that you are short on iron. Left untreated, this can be dangerous.

Red blood cells give your blood its red color. The cells contain the protein hemoglobin, which lasts for about four months, on average, circulating oxygen throughout your body. Afterwards, these cells go to the liver to be broken down.

New red blood cells are continuously created in the bone marrow, as old red blood cells die off.


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So what does a low red blood cell count mean?

It means your red blood cells are dying faster than you are replacing them. This usually happens because of a lack of essential nutrients, especially iron. The medical term for this condition is anemia.

Iron deficiency anemia symptoms

Although other shortages of essential nutrients can cause anemia, iron deficiency is the most common. You might be on a restrictive diet, or have inflammatory bowel disease. Heavy periods or internal bleeding can also leach out your iron.

Typical iron deficiency anemia symptoms include unusual fatigue — about half of all people with iron deficiency feel tired. Less oxygen is reaching your tissues and muscles, and your heart must beat harder. You might also feel weak, cranky, and have trouble concentrating.

Another symptom is pale skin. If you pull down your lower eyelid, you should see vibrant red skin. If it is pale pink or yellow, you may be short of hemoglobin, which makes your blood red.

You may feel short of breath even when the activity isn’t especially strenuous. If you’re short of breath when walking or climbing stairs, consider anemia.

Headaches and dizziness are other possible symptoms of a low red blood cell count. So are heart palpitations, because the heart must work harder to carry oxygen. Your heart usually won’t be affected unless you’ve been anemic for a long time.

Your skin and hair could become dry and, in severe cases, you might have hair loss.

Your tongue may be swollen, pale, or strangely smooth. The swelling would be caused by a lack of myoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that supports muscles.

You also might have sore red cracks at the corner of your mouth.

Your legs may become restless, or you might have unpleasant itchy or crawling sensations, usually at night while trying to sleep. Other possible iron deficiency anemia symptoms are anxiety, cold hands and feet, more frequent infections, and cravings to eat ice.

Foods rich in iron

To make sure you’re getting enough iron, review your diet. Many Americans get their iron from red meat, so vegetarians sometimes get into trouble. Good sources of iron are lean beef, oysters, chicken and turkey, and eggs. Some of the best plant foods rich in iron are beans and lentils, tofu, baked potatoes, cashews, and spinach and kale.

Seeds and nuts and dried fruit like raisins and apricots contain iron. Fruits and vegetables high in vitamin C will help your body absorb iron. Other foods can interfere with iron absorption in large amounts, including tea, coffee, dairy products, and whole grain cereal.

If your doctor recommends an iron supplement, you might drink it with orange juice to boost absorption. Iron supplements can have side effects like stomach pain, heartburn, nausea, and constipation and diarrhea.


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April 01, 2020

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN