Hemoglobin is the iron-containing protein found in all red blood cells (RBCs) that gives the cells their characteristic red color. Hemoglobin enables RBCs to bind to oxygen in the lungs and carry it to tissues and organs throughout the body. It also helps transport a small portion of carbon dioxide, a product of cell metabolism, from tissues and organs to the lungs, where it is exhaled.
The hemoglobin test measures the amount of hemoglobin your sample of blood. A hemoglobin level can be performed alone or with a hematocrit, a test that measures the proportion of blood that is made up of RBCs, to evaluate your red blood cells. It is also one component of the complete blood count (CBC), a group of tests that are often used in the general evaluation of your health.
Red blood cells, which make up about 40% (ranging 37-49%) of the blood's volume, are produced in the bone marrow and are released into the bloodstream when they are, or nearly are, mature. The typical lifespan of an RBC is 120 days, and the bone marrow must continually produce new RBCs to replace those that age and degrade or are lost through bleeding.
Several diseases and conditions can affect RBCs and consequently the level of hemoglobin in the blood. In general, the hemoglobin level and hematocrit rise when the number of red blood cells increases. The hemoglobin level and hematocrit fall to less than normal when there is a decrease in RBCs.
Some conditions affect RBC production in the bone marrow and may cause an increase or decrease in the number of mature RBCs released into the blood circulation. Other conditions may affect the lifespan of RBCs in the circulation. If there is increased destruction of RBCs (hemolysis) or loss of RBCs through bleeding and/or the bone marrow is not able to produce new ones fast enough, then the overall number of RBCs and hemoglobin will drop, resulting in anemia.
Anemia is a condition in which tissues and organs in the body do not get enough oxygen, causing fatigue and weakness. If too many RBCs are produced, polycythemia results and the blood can become thickened, causing sluggish blood flow and related problems.
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