Features of peripheral smear like erythrocyte size, haemoglobinization and variability in size have long been useful in evaluation of patients with anaemia. The definitions of these parameters before the advent of haematological counters were subjective. The haematological counters have allowed an accurate measurement of erythrocyte size and numbers allowing reliable determination of mean cell volume (MCV), mean cell haemoglobin (MCH) and mean cellular haemoglobin concentration (MCHC). Mean cellular volume is used to classify anaemias (see Evaluating Anaemias). MCV is of little value in differentiating two of the commonest causes of anemia, iron deficiency and β-thalassaemia trait as both are microcytic hypochromic.
Anisocytosis is and abnormal variation in erythrocyte size. It is a feature of nutritional deficiencies, myelofibrosis, bone marrow infiltrations, microangiopathic haemolytic anaemia and in the presence of erythrocyte aggregates. Thalassaemias do not show anisocytosis. The erythrocyte is a disc approximately the diameter of the nucleus of a small lymphocyte and the central one-third is pale. The assessment of anisocytosis is subjective. Red cell distribution width(RDW) is quantitation of aniscytosis.
Standard deviation of a parameter is a measure of its scatter from the mean. MCV is an average of erythrocyte volumes measured by the counter. RDW is the standard deviation of these observations. It is expressed as a percentage of MCV. The normal values are 11.5-14.5%. High RDW means more anisocytosis.
Despite the apparent promise RDW has a limited role in diagnosis. A normal RDW in a microcytic anaemia can suggest the presence of on thalssaemia but can not be relied on as a sole criteria for separating iron deficiency from thalassaemia. The presence of a high RDW should alert one to the presence of one of the causes of anaemia listed above but again RDW can not be relied on for making a final diagnosis of any of these conditions. Blood transfusion in an anaemic patient increases the RDW.