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Red Blood Cells

Uncover the fascinating secrets of red blood cells and their crucial role in sustaining life, from their remarkable journey through your body to their extraordinary ability to deliver oxygen, in this eye-opening article.

USMLE Guide: Red Blood Cells


Red blood cells (RBCs), also known as erythrocytes, play a crucial role in transporting oxygen throughout the body. Understanding the structure, function, and disorders related to RBCs is fundamental for medical professionals. This guide aims to provide a comprehensive overview of RBCs, covering their formation, lifespan, function, and common disorders.

Table of Contents

  1. Structure and Composition of Red Blood Cells
  2. Red Blood Cell Formation (Erythropoiesis)
  3. Lifespan of Red Blood Cells
  4. Function of Red Blood Cells
  5. Common Disorders Related to Red Blood Cells
    • Anemia
    • Hemolysis
    • Sickle Cell Disease
    • Thalassemia
    • Polycythemia

Structure and Composition of Red Blood Cells

  • RBCs are biconcave, disc-shaped cells without a nucleus.
  • They contain hemoglobin, a protein responsible for binding and transporting oxygen.
  • The cytoplasm of RBCs is packed with hemoglobin, giving them their characteristic red color.
  • RBCs have a lifespan of approximately 120 days.

Red Blood Cell Formation (Erythropoiesis)

  • Erythropoiesis occurs primarily in the bone marrow, specifically in the axial skeleton, pelvis, and proximal long bones.
  • The process is regulated by the hormone erythropoietin, which is released from the kidneys in response to low oxygen levels.
  • Erythropoiesis involves the differentiation of hematopoietic stem cells into progenitor cells, which then mature into RBCs.
  • Iron, vitamin B12, and folic acid are essential for normal erythropoiesis.

Lifespan of Red Blood Cells

  • RBCs have a limited lifespan of approximately 120 days.
  • After their lifespan, senescent RBCs are removed from circulation by macrophages primarily in the spleen and liver.
  • The breakdown of RBCs results in the release of bilirubin, which is further metabolized and excreted as bile pigments.

Function of Red Blood Cells

  • RBCs are responsible for transporting oxygen from the lungs to various tissues and organs.
  • Hemoglobin within RBCs binds to oxygen in the lungs and releases it in tissues with low oxygen concentrations.
  • Carbon dioxide, a waste product of cellular respiration, is transported by RBCs back to the lungs for exhalation.

Common Disorders Related to Red Blood Cells


  • Anemia is a condition characterized by a decrease in the number or quality of RBCs.
  • Causes of anemia include nutritional deficiencies (iron, vitamin B12, folic acid), chronic diseases, bone marrow disorders, and genetic abnormalities.
  • Symptoms of anemia include fatigue, weakness, shortness of breath, pale skin, and rapid heart rate.
  • Treatment depends on the underlying cause and may involve iron supplementation, blood transfusions, or medication.


  • Hemolysis refers to the premature destruction of RBCs.
  • It can be caused by various factors, including autoimmune disorders, infections, medications, and certain genetic conditions.
  • Symptoms of hemolysis include jaundice, dark urine, an enlarged spleen, and fatigue.
  • Treatment aims to address the underlying cause and may involve immunosuppressive drugs or blood transfusions.

Sickle Cell Disease

  • Sickle Cell Disease (SCD) is a genetic disorder characterized by abnormal hemoglobin, resulting in the deformation of RBCs into a sickle shape.
  • SCD can cause episodes of severe pain, anemia, organ damage, and increased susceptibility to infections.
  • Treatment focuses on managing symptoms and complications, including pain management, blood transfusions, and hydroxyurea therapy.


  • Thalassemia is an inherited blood disorder characterized by reduced production of normal hemoglobin.
  • It can cause anemia, fatigue, bone deformities, and organ damage.
  • Treatment depends on the severity and may involve blood transfusions, iron chelation therapy, and folic acid supplementation.


  • Polycythemia is a condition characterized by an abnormally high number of RBCs.
  • Primary polycythemia (polycythemia vera) is a rare bone marrow disorder, while secondary polycythemia can be caused by conditions such as chronic hypoxia or certain tumors.
  • Symptoms include headache, dizziness, itching, and increased risk of blood clots.
  • Treatment aims to reduce the number of RBCs and may involve phlebotomy, medication, or radiation therapy.


Understanding the structure, function, and disorders related to red blood cells is essential for medical professionals

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