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Red Blood Cell Distribution Width
July 2003

Q. I am a nursing student and would like to know what the lab value RDW stands for? All I know is that it stands for Red Blood Cell Distribution Width. What is it's significance? What are the nursing interventions for a patient who has an elevated RDW? Can it be corrected/curable? Is it linked to any particular cancers or diseases?

A. When a blood sample is taken, several measurements are made to determine the number and characteristics of the blood components. The red cell is the carrier of oxygen to all tissues of the body, so the proper number of healthy cells is critical. Common measures include the red cell count (total number), hematocrit (percent of the blood volume comprised by the red cells), hemoglobin (oxygen content), and various measurements of the cell size and shape (cell volume, cell hemoglobin content).

One such measure is the RDW which measures whether the cells are approximately the same size and shape. If any of these measures are abnormal, further tests are often needed to determine the cause and significance. The most common abnormality would be anemia, meaning a low number of red blood cells, of which many causes may be present.



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