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How to Interpret CBC Results: A Comprehensive Guide

Medically reviewed by 
 
How to Interpret CBC Results: A Comprehensive Guide

A complete blood count (CBC) is a common and crucial blood test for evaluating overall health. With a simple blood draw, this test gives your healthcare provider important information about your blood to help them diagnose, monitor, and screen for a wide range of health conditions. This article acts as a comprehensive guide to understanding CBC results.

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What Is a Complete Blood Count (CBC)?

A CBC is a comprehensive blood test routinely performed in medical diagnostics to assess the cellular components of the blood and identify abnormalities or disorders. The CBC provides essential information about the quantity and quality of red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets, offering valuable insights into a patient's overall health. Including a differential in the CBC (CBC with Diff) refers to the breakdown of the types and percentages of white blood cells present, enhancing the diagnostic capabilities of the test regarding infections, immune disorders, and hematological conditions. (12, 13)

Key components measured in a CBC with Diff include:

  1. Red Blood Cell (RBC) Count
  2. Hemoglobin and Hematocrit
  3. White Blood Cell (WBC) Count 
  4. Platelet Count
  5. Differential

Components of the CBC and Their Significance

Let's discuss each of the CBC components in more detail. 

Red Blood Cells

RBCs carry oxygen from the lungs to the body's peripheral tissues and transfer carbon dioxide from the tissues to the lungs. The RBC count measures the total number of RBCs per unit of blood volume to help diagnose anemias and other blood disorders. (7

Normal Range (Male): 4.7 to 6.1 million cells/mcL (5)

Normal Range (Female): 4.2 to 5.4 million cells/mcL (5)

Red Blood Cell Indices

In addition to the RBC count, the CBC also provides RBC indices, which provide specific information about the size, hemoglobin content, and concentration of RBCs. These measurements are helpful in the diagnosis and classification of blood disorders. 

Mean corpuscular volume (MCV) measures the volume of an average single RBC. It indicates whether RBC size appears normal (normocytic), small (microcytic), or large (macrocytic). (20

MCV Normal Range: 80 to 95 fL (5

Mean corpuscular hemoglobin (MCH) is a calculated expression of the average weight of hemoglobin per RBC. Along with MCV, MCH helps classify anemia types by RBC cell size. (20

MCH Normal Range: 27 to 31 pg (5)

Mean corpuscular hemoglobin concentration (MCHC) measures the average hemoglobin concentration in RBCs to indicate RBC cell size. MCHC never exceeds 37 g/dL because RBCs cannot accommodate more than 37 g/dL of hemoglobin. (20)  

MCHC Normal Range: 32 to 36 g/dL (5)

Red cell distribution width (RDW) indicates the degree of abnormal variation in the size of RBCs. Higher numbers indicate a greater variation in size and shape between RBCs. (20

RDW Normal Range: 11 to 15% (5)

Hemoglobin

Hemoglobin is the oxygen-carrying protein in RBCs. The oxygen-carrying capacity of blood is directly proportional to hemoglobin concentration. (14

Normal Range (Male): 13.8 to 17.2 grams/dL (5)

Normal Range (Female): 12.1 to 15.1 grams/dL (5)

Hematocrit

Hematocrit is the RBC volume expressed as a percentage of whole blood volume. Hematocrit is an indirect estimate of hemoglobin concentration and is dependent on the number and size of RBCs in circulation. (17

Normal Range (Male): 40.7% to 50.3% (5)

Normal Range (Female): 36.1% to 44.3% (5)

White Blood Cells

White blood cells, or leukocytes, are immune cells that fight infections. The WBC count provides the total number of WBCs in the blood to help diagnose infection or other inflammatory disorders. (25)

Normal Range: 4,500 to 10,000 cells/mcL (5)

Platelets

Platelet count is a measure of the number of platelets in the blood. Platelets are cells that adhere and aggregate to form clots to stop and prevent bleeding. (24

Normal Range: 150,000 to 450,000 cells/dL  (5)

Differential

There are five major types of white blood cells. The WBC differential measures the relative and absolute number of each type of these WBCs in circulation.

Neutrophils are the most numerous and important WBCs in the body's reaction to inflammation. They are the primary defense cells against bacterial infection. (25

Neutrophil (%) Reference Range: 50 to 70% (6

Neutrophil (Absolute) Reference Range: 1.800 to 7.7 x 10E3/uL (6

Lymphocytes are involved in the early and late stages of inflammatory processes. They play an important role in adaptive immunity by producing immunoglobulins. (25

Lymphocyte (%) Reference Range: 18 to 42% (6

Lymphocyte (Absolute) Reference Range: 1.0 to 4.8 x 10E3/uL (6

Monocytes are the body's second line of defense against infection. They remove dead cells, microorganisms, and particulate matter from circulation. (25

Monocyte (%) Reference Range: 3.5 to 9.0% (6

Monocyte (Absolute) Reference Range: 0.1 to 0.9 x 10E3/uL (6

Eosinophils are white blood cells that play a role in allergic reactions and defense against parasitic infections. (25

Eosinophil (%) Reference Range: 1 to 3% (6

Eosinophil (Absolute) Reference Range: 0 to 0.5 x 10E3/uL (6

Basophils are the least numerous types of WBC. These phagocytic cells contain and secrete histamine, heparin, and serotonin. (25

Basophil (%) Reference Range: 0 to 2% (6

Basophil (Absolute) Reference Range: 0 to 0.1 x 10E3/uL (6

Common Abnormalities in CBC Results

By measuring the various cell types in circulation, the CBC is a helpful tool in diagnosing and monitoring a range of disorders, including anemia, infections, cancer, and clotting disorders. Common CBC abnormalities are explained below.

Anemia

Anemia is the most common type of blood disorder characterized by a reduction in the number of RBCs or the amount of hemoglobin in the blood. On a CBC, anemia will present with low RBCs, hemoglobin, and/or hematocrit. Variations in red blood cell indices are also common, depending on the type of anemia present. (21) Clinically, patients with anemia commonly complain of fatigue, weakness, pale skin, shortness of breath, and dizziness. Anemias can result from various causes, including nutritional deficiencies (e.g., iron, vitamin B12, and folate), chronic diseases, bone marrow disorders, or hereditary conditions. If not treated, anemia can lead to severe exhaustion, complications in pregnancy, heart problems, and (in rare cases) death. (1, 11

Infection

Acute infections often lead to an increase in WBC count, indicating an immune system response to pathogens. The CBC differential will help determine the type of infection present. Elevated neutrophil counts are common during bacterial infections, elevated lymphocytes are common during viral infections, and high eosinophils are common with parasitic infections. Significant increases in white blood cells may be indicative of cancer. (25

On the other hand, reductions in WBCs may be seen in chronic infections, bone marrow failure, states of immunosuppression, and nutrient deficiencies (25).

Clotting Disorders

Clotting disorders can be reflected in the CBC through abnormalities in platelet count. Thrombocytopenia (low platelet count) may result in increased bleeding tendencies, while conditions like thrombocytosis (elevated platelet count) can contribute to a higher risk of clot formation. Symptoms of clotting disorders can range from easy bruising and prolonged bleeding to the formation of blood clots, potentially leading to serious complications like deep vein thrombosis or stroke. (19)

CBC in Diagnosing and Monitoring Diseases

As you can see, the CBC is an essential tool in diagnosing and monitoring diseases, including anemias, clotting disorders, infections, autoimmune diseases, inflammation, cancers, and nutritional deficiencies. This is why a CBC is a standard blood test ordered during routine health screenings. 

However, CBC results are rarely interpreted in isolation. They are often used with other diagnostic tests to obtain a more comprehensive view of a patient's health, enabling accurate diagnoses and personalized, effective treatment plans. Here are examples of other tests that may be ordered alongside or as a follow-up to the CBC:

  • Blood Smear: A peripheral blood smear provides a detailed examination of blood cells' morphology, helping to identify abnormalities not evident in the CBC alone, such as unusual cell shapes. 
  • Coagulation Studies: Tests like prothrombin time (PT) and activated partial thromboplastin time (aPTT), offered by labs like Access Medical Laboratories, assess the blood's clotting ability, aiding in diagnosing clotting disorders.
  • Bone Marrow Aspiration and Biopsy: For suspected blood disorders or cancers, these procedures directly examine the bone marrow, helping to confirm diagnoses and assess the degree of bone marrow involvement. (3
  • Inflammatory Markers: Ordering ESR and hs-CRP through Access Medical Laboratories assists in determining the presence and severity of inflammation, guiding further investigations and treatment decisions.
  • Micronutrient Panel: Nutrient deficiencies in B vitamins, iron, copper, zinc, and vitamin D are possible causes of anemias and leukopenias (low WBCs). A micronutrient panel, such as the Cellular Micronutrient Assay by Cell Science Systems, comprehensively assesses an individual's nutritional status to help diagnose deficiencies.
  • Infection Panels: PCR and antibody-based blood tests help provide specific information about the causative pathogen of infection, aiding targeted antimicrobial treatment. The Opportunistic Infections panel by Vibrant Wellness is one such panel that combines antibody and PCR methods to detect bacterial and viral infections. 

Factors Influencing CBC Results

Abnormal CBC results may not necessarily indicate an active disease state. External factors, such as diet, hydration, medication, and lifestyle habits, can influence blood counts, resulting in transient elevations or depressions in RBC, WBC, or platelet counts. For example, dehydration causes cells to be more concentrated, leading to elevations in RBCs, WBCs, and platelets. Chronic alcohol use, certain medications (such as testosterone or corticosteroids), chronic stress, smoking, living at high altitudes, and high-intensity exercise are other factors that can influence CBC values. Failure to account for these factors may lead to misinterpretation of abnormalities or misdiagnosis. (5

Functional Medicine Perspective on CBC

Functional medicine is an approach to healthcare that emphasizes a holistic understanding of the body and aims to identify and address the root causes of health issues rather than just treating symptoms. When interpreting CBC results from a functional medicine perspective, practitioners focus on individual variability and a comprehensive view of health, looking for patterns that may indicate imbalances or health risks not always evident in standard interpretations.

In functional medicine, each person is seen as unique, with distinct genetic makeup, lifestyle, and environmental influences. This personalized approach considers that individuals may respond differently to the same health intervention, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. When examining CBC results, functional medicine practitioners interpret the absolute values of blood parameters and the subtle patterns and relationships between different elements. They also differentiate between standard and optimal reference ranges. This shifts the healthcare model from one that categorizes health as either "normal" or "abnormal" to one that views health on a spectrum. In doing so, functional medicine providers are better equipped to prevent the onset of pathologic disease.

For example, a functional medicine practitioner may scrutinize variations in RBC counts and indices to detect subtle signs of nutrient deficiencies or imbalances, even if RBC measures are not marked as frankly abnormal. This allows patients to make changes to dietary and supplemental regimens to prevent the development of anemia.

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How to Interpret CBC Results: Key Takeaways

CBC results provide essential insights into blood composition, including red and white blood cells and platelets. The comprehensive nature of CBC enables early identification of blood cell abnormalities, contributing to timely intervention and disease management. Regular monitoring of CBC results is instrumental in tracking the effectiveness of treatments, adjusting care plans, and fostering proactive health management by addressing underlying issues before they escalate. The importance of CBC in health management lies in its ability to serve as a cornerstone for laboratory diagnostics, enabling providers to easily screen, diagnose, and manage a wide range of health conditions.

The information provided is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always consult with your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider before taking any dietary supplement or making any changes to your diet or exercise routine.
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References

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