Hematocrit is the percentage of red blood cells in a person’s blood. Low red blood cell levels indicate conditions such as anemia. High red blood cell levels could signal polycythemia, increasing a person’s chance of developing a blood clot.
If a person feels tired, dizzy, or short of breath, a doctor may want to test their hematocrit levels to see if those levels fall into a normal range or not.
Read on to learn more about what this measure of red blood cell volume means, symptoms of abnormal levels, and what low and high levels might indicate.
Hematocrit measures the percentage of red blood cells in the body. For example: if a person has 50 milliliters (ml) of red blood cells in 100 ml of blood, their hematocrit level is 50%.
Red blood cells transport oxygen around the body and give blood its characteristic red color. In addition to oxygen, they also contain hemoglobin, a protein that binds to oxygen molecules. This allows red blood cells to pick up oxygen from the lungs and deliver it throughout the body.
An adequate amount of red blood cells is essential to keep the body’s processes running smoothly.
Many conditions can affect red blood cell production or its life cycle. This can make it difficult for a medical professional to diagnose these conditions. A doctor will use a hematocrit test to confirm whether a person’s red blood cell count is affecting a health condition.
Doctors usually test hematocrit levels as part of a complete blood count (CBC).
A CBC is composed of a range of tests and may include:
- red blood cell count
- reticulocyte count (young red blood cells)
- an analysis of hemoglobin levels
- an analysis of red blood cells, including size and shape
- white blood cell tests
- platelet tests
A doctor will also consider a person’s sex, race, and age. It is important to note that certain blood-related conditions, such as sickle-cell anemia, affect particular demographic groups at higher rates.
A doctor may request frequent hematocrit tests to monitor the effect of chemotherapy on a person’s bone marrow.
Both high and low hematocrit levels can be detrimental to a person’s health and result from various conditions and lifestyle factors.
What are normal hematocrit levels?
Different institutions will define normal hematocrit levels differently. However, a 2017 cross-population study found the following ranges to be typical.
- Male: 42-52%
- Female: 37-47%
- Children: 30–44%, depending on their age and sex
Newborn babies have
If a person has recently received a blood transfusion, it may affect their results. Additionally, pregnant individuals may have lower levels than usual because the body increases its blood volume during pregnancy.
Other factors, such as smoking and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), may push levels into a higher range.
A hematocrit level below 35% in women and 41% in men is low. A level under this value can
Hematocrit levels above the typical ranges can have adverse effects. It may indicate serious underlying health conditions.
Accuracy of results
Results from hematocrit tests are typically accurate and provide a clear reading of a person’s red blood cell levels.
However, the percentage of red blood cells in someone’s blood can change depending on various lifestyle factors and even environmental changes. According to research, red blood cell counts tend to increase at high altitudes.
Exercise, particularly strength training, may also affect hematocrit levels. A 2018 study found that females who participated in 16 weeks of strength exercise had lower levels at the end than when they started. However, the study had a small sample size of 26 middle-aged, sedentary Turkish women. This means that these findings aren’t necessarily representative of a wider population.
Dehydration can also raise hematocrit levels, so this test is useful if a doctor suspects severe dehydration is the cause of a person’s symptoms.
When a person has low hematocrit levels, they tend to present with the following symptoms:
These symptoms also indicate anemia, a condition where hemoglobin levels are lower than normal. Hemoglobin is a protein found in red blood cells that carries oxygen around the body.
Mild anemia is treatable, and it is
Doctors associate anemia with several health conditions, including:
A person may lack B12, folate, or iron in their diet.
This commonly occurs due to digestive tract ulcers, which are sores caused by the bacteria H.pylori or chronic use of anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen, other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), and aspirin. Many women also experience excessive blood loss from heavy menstrual bleeding.
Bone marrow disorder
This includes aplastic anemia, which damages stem cells in bone marrow.
These cancers spread to bone marrow, such as leukemia and lymphoma.
Kidney disease can lower the production of red blood cells, reducing hematocrit levels.
When a person has this condition, their body
Sickle cell anemia
This condition changes the shape of red blood cells. These cells die earlier than normal, and they also clump together, which impairs blood flow.
Conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus
When a person has high hematocrit levels, they tend to present with these symptoms:
These symptoms signal polycythemia, a condition where the body produces
Doctors cannot cure polycythemia, so treatment focuses on symptom management. The main goal is to avoid stroke and deep vein thrombosis (DVT), which is a blood clot usually occurring in a deep vein in the leg.
In some cases, dehydration causes polycythemia. When a person does not drink enough, their plasma levels drop, increasing the proportion of red blood cells in their blood volume. A person can lower their red blood cell count by rehydrating.
Some conditions that can cause high hematocrit levels include:
Lung or pulmonary disease
When the lungs cannot absorb oxygen effectively, and oxygen levels drop, the body compensates by making more red blood cells. One common pulmonary disease causing this is COPD.
If the structure of a person’s heart reduces its ability to pump blood around the body, it can no longer sustain vital organs with oxygen. To try and overcome the oxygen deficit, the body produces more red blood cells.
Sometimes kidney cancer cells create
The JAK2 gene, which controls the number of blood cells made in the bone marrow, can affect certain conditions. When someone has a mutated JAK2 gene, the body could make a protein that signals the bone marrow to create more red blood cells than it needs.
A person should speak with a doctor if they are experiencing any of the symptoms listed above that could be a sign of high or low hematocrit levels, including fatigue, weakness, vision problems, and dizziness.
These symptoms can also indicate an underlying condition, so a person must contact a doctor promptly to prevent future complications.
If a person is receiving chemotherapy treatment, a doctor should perform regular hematocrit tests to monitor bone marrow health.
Hematocrit is the percentage of blood cells in a person’s blood volume. A doctor may test an individual’s hematocrit level due to certain symptoms.
A low hematocrit level means there are too few red blood cells in the body. In these cases, a person may experience symptoms that signal anemia. Common symptoms include fatigue, weakness, and low energy.
If a person has too many red blood cells, they have a high hematocrit level. A person may experience dizziness and headaches, which can be a sign of the condition polycythemia.
Demographic and lifestyle factors can influence a person’s hematocrit levels. For example, males tend to have higher levels than females. Pregnant individuals can experience a decrease in hematocrit levels, and strength training may also reduce levels.
There are also several health conditions that can cause hematocrit levels outside the normal range. Excessive bleeding, thalassemia, and kidney disease are causes of low levels. COPD and sickle cell anemia can cause high levels.