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CBC Advanced, with manual Diff & Microscopic Imaging


An examination of the blood slide can reveal important information about the current state of health. Typically, a drop of blood is spread out to a single cell layer on a glass slide and professionally stained to enhance specific cell characteristics. A laboratory trained and licensed staff member reviews the slide for abnormalities and additional findings. Everything from Count, Size, Shape, Color, Ratios, Grade of Maturity, Inclusions and non-blood related findings will be noted and interpreted. Please see below a short list of possible findings. Anything can be a hint to Metabolic disorders, Medication, Nutritional, Infections (Bacterial / Viral), developmental problems within the blood, Allergies, Parasites, Poisons and Radiation.

Its major roles are in the differential diagnosis of anemia and thrombocytopenia and in the identification and characterization of leukemia and lymphoma.


Modern automated instruments impart valuable information about the nature of anemia. They provide not only a red-cell count, mean cell volume, mean cell hemoglobin (a measure of the average amount of hemoglobin in an individual red cell), and the mean cell hemoglobin concentration (a measure of the average concentration of hemoglobin in a cell) but also newer variables that give information that previously could be derived only from a blood smear. These variables usually include the red-cell–distribution width, which correlates on a blood smear with anisocytosis, and they may also include the hemoglobin-distribution width and the percentages of hypochromic and hyperchromic cells, which correlate with anisochromasia, hypochromia, and hyperchromia. A variety of histograms and scatterplots give a visual representation of red-cell characteristics. It may be possible to detect increased numbers of hyperchromic cells (spherocytes or irregularly contracted cells), small hyperchromic cells (microspherocytes), hypochromic microcytic cells, large normochromic cells (normally hemoglobinized macrocytes), and hypochromic macrocytes (either reticulocytes or dysplastic red cells).

Despite this wealth of information, there are still morphologic abnormalities that are critical in the differential diagnosis of anemia and that can be determined only from a blood smear. Particularly important is the detection of variations in cell shape and of red-cell inclusions, such as Howell–Jolly bodies (nuclear fragments), Pappenheimer bodies (hemosiderin-containing granules), and basophilic stippling or punctate basophilia (altered ribosomes).

Hemolytic Anemia

In the hemolytic anemias, red-cell shape is of considerable diagnostic importance. Some types of hemolytic anemia yield such a distinctive blood smear that the smear is often sufficient for diagnosis. This is true of hereditary elliptocytosis (which is only infrequently associated with anemia) Hemolytic Anemias, Characterized by Different Types of Poikilocytes.In Panel A, the blood smear shows hereditary elliptocytosis, with numerous elliptocytes and smaller numbers of ovalocytes. Panel B shows hereditary pyropoikilocytosis; there is striking poikilocytosis, with elliptocytes, ovalocytes, and fragments. In Panel C, Southeast Asian ovalocytosis shows moderate poikilocytosis, with the poikilocytes including several macro-ovalocytes (arrows). Panel D shows microangiopathic hemolytic anemia resulting from cyclosporine therapy, with numerous red-cell fragments. All specimens were stained with May–Grünwald–Giemsa stain. ), hereditary pyropoikilocytosis, and Southeast Asian ovalocytosis, a distinctive type of inherited hemolytic anemia that is common in some parts of Southeast Asia and is now also seen in Europe and North America as a result of immigration. The presence of spherocytes is not diagnostically specific, since this may result from hereditary spherocytosis, autoimmune hemolytic anemia, or alloimmune hemolytic anemia (e.g., hemolytic disease of the newborn or a delayed transfusion reaction). Nevertheless, consideration of the clinical features, together with the results of a direct antiglobulin test, in patients with spherocytes will generally indicate the correct diagnosis.

Microspherocytes (i.e., cells that are both hyperchromic and significantly reduced in size and therefore in diameter) may be present in low numbers in patients with a spherocytic hemolytic anemia but are also characteristic of burns and of microangiopathic hemolytic anemia. The detection of a microangiopathic hemolytic anemia is of considerable clinical significance, since this type of anemia may indicate pregnancy-associated hypertension, disseminated cancer, chronic disseminated intravascular coagulation, the hemolytic–uremic syndrome, or thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura; the latter two conditions both require urgent diagnosis so that appropriate management can be initiated. In microangiopathic hemolytic anemia, examination of the blood smear is also important to validate the platelet count, since red-cell fragments and platelets may be of similar size. Most automated instruments cannot make this distinction. A minority of automated instruments that measure both the size and the refractive index of small particles in the blood sample can make this distinction and can be used to exclude red-cell fragmentation; however, although the fragment “flag” on such instruments is sensitive, it is not specific. Hence, a blood smear is still advised for validation.2 Blood-smear features similar to those seen in microangiopathic hemolytic anemia are also a feature of mechanical hemolytic anemia, such as that associated with a leaking prosthetic valve, and provide important evidence of this cause of hemolytic anemia.

A blood smear is particularly important in the diagnosis of acute hemolysis induced by oxidant damage. The characteristic feature is the presence of keratocytes, or “bite” cells Red-Cell Changes in Various Types of Hemolytic Anemia.The blood smear in Panel A depicts acute hemolysis in glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase (G6PD) deficiency, with the presence of a “bite” cell, or keratocyte (arrow). Panel B shows acute hemolysis in G6PD deficiency, with two “blister cells” (arrows), as well as polychromatic macrocytes and irregularly contracted cells (arrowheads). In Panel C, hereditary spherocytosis is characterized by numerous spherocytes (hyperchromatic cells with a regular outline). Panel D shows paroxysmal cold hemoglobinuria, with erythrophagocytosis; the arrow points to a red cell that has been phagocytosed by a neutrophil. All specimens were stained with May–Grünwald–Giemsa stain. ), “blister” cells, and irregularly contracted cells; the latter must be distinguished from spherocytes because of the quite different diagnostic significance. These irregularly contracted cells share with spherocytes the lack of central pallor but differ in that they have an irregular outline. Oxidant-induced hemolysis is most often seen in glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase (G6PD) deficiency but can also occur with other defects in the pentose shunt or in glutathione synthesis and when oxidant exposure overwhelms normal protective mechanisms. Oxidant damage may be exogenous, as in exposure to oxidant chemicals or drugs (most often dapsone), or endogenous, as in Wilson’s disease.

G6PD deficiency affects millions of persons worldwide. A blood smear is important for the diagnosis of this condition, for two reasons. First, it is available far more rapidly than are the results of a G6PD assay and, when considered together with the patient’s ethnic origin and clinical history, permits a provisional diagnosis. Second, a blood smear can suggest the diagnosis of G6PD deficiency even if a G6PD assay is normal. Normal G6PD activity may be found after acute hemolysis in G6PD-deficient persons in two situations. First, men of African or African-American ancestry who are hemizygous for the A– alloenzyme (which is present at normal levels in reticulocytes) can have normal G6PD levels because the reticulocyte count is high after hemolysis. Second, female carriers — for example, those who are hemizygous for the common Mediterranean variant of G6PD — can have a normal assay result after an acute hemolytic episode because the abnormal cells have lysed preferentially, leaving mainly the cells expressing the normal allele in the circulation. In both of these circumstances, the observation of a typical blood smear in an appropriate clinical setting is an indication to repeat the assay once the acute hemolytic episode is over.

Other features may aid in the differential diagnosis of hemolytic anemia. For example, the presence of red-cell agglutinates usually indicates the presence of a cold agglutinin, and erythrophagocytosis is often a feature of paroxysmal cold hemoglobinuria .

Macrocytic Anemia

The blood smear is of great importance in the differential diagnosis of macrocytic anemias. For patients in whom there is a deficiency of vitamin B12 or folic acid, the blood smear shows not only macrocytes but also oval macrocytes and hypersegmented neutrophils Red-Cell Changes in Various Types of Macrocytic Anemia.Pernicious anemia is shown in the blood smear in Panel A, with anisocytosis, macrocytosis, and a hypersegmented neutrophil. Panel B shows myelodysplastic syndrome, with a blast cell (arrow) and two neutrophils that have hypolobulated nuclei, one of which is binucleated and the other hypogranular. Panel C shows myelodysplastic syndrome with anisocytosis, poikilocytosis, macrocytes, stomatocytes, and an erythrocyte with prominent Pappenheimer bodies (arrow); the smear is also dimorphic, showing both well-hemoglobinized macrocytes and hypochromic microcytes. Panel D depicts type 1 congenital dyserythropoietic anemia, with anisocytosis, poikilocytosis, and some macrocytes. All specimens were stained with May–Grünwald–Giemsa stain. . When the anemia is more severe, there may be marked poikilocytosis, with teardrop poikilocytes and red-cell fragments. Although these deficiency states are now usually recognized on the basis of assays of vitamin B12 and folic acid, the blood smear remains important for two reasons. First, it permits a speedy provisional diagnosis, and initiation of appropriate treatment in severely anemic patients while assay results are pending. Second, occasionally there are patients with a clinically significant vitamin B12 deficiency despite a normal assay result. This discrepancy occurs because much of the vitamin B12 that is measured in the assay is bound to haptocorrin, whereas the functional vitamin B12, which is bound to transcobalamin, contributes much less to the assay of total B12.

Similarly, acute folic acid deficiency sometimes develops in patients even though the total red-cell folate level remains normal. The observation of a blood smear that is typical of megaloblastic anemia despite normal assays is an indication that further investigation and a trial of treatment are needed. Liver disease and excess ethanol consumption are common causes of macrocytosis, with the blood smear usually showing round rather than oval macrocytes and lacking hypersegmented neutrophils; target cells and stomatocytes may also be present.

In elderly patients, the myelodysplastic syndromes are an important cause of macrocytosis. Blood-smear features that may point to the diagnosis include hypogranular or hypolobulated neutrophils, blast cells, giant or hypogranular platelets, Pappenheimer bodies, and the presence of a minor population of hypochromic microcytic cells, leading to a dimorphic smear. Macrocytic anemia resulting from congenital dyserythropoietic anemia also yields a characteristic blood smear, with striking poikilocytosis. When macrocytosis is the result of hemolysis or recent blood loss, the blood smear shows polychromasia, which results from an increased reticulocyte count.

Microcytic Anemia

The blood smear is generally less important in the differential diagnosis of the microcytic than the macrocytic anemias. Red-cell indices and serum ferritin levels, sometimes supplemented by markers of inflammation, that are interpreted in the context of clinical features, permit the diagnosis of the majority of cases. However, it is important to note that the presence of Pappenheimer bodies and red-cell dimorphism in the sideroblastic anemias and of basophilic stippling in cases of lead poisoning Red-Cell Changes with Lead Poisoning and in Hemoglobinopathies Panel A shows an erythrocyte with prominent basophilic stippling (arrow), a result of lead poisoning. Panel B shows sickle cell anemia, with a nucleated red cell (black arrow), sickle cells (white arrow), and boat-shaped cells (arrowhead). Panel C shows sickle cell–hemoglobin C disease, with target cells, irregular contracted cells, and two hemoglobin SC poikilocytes (arrows). Panel D demonstrates heterozygosity for hemoglobin Hammersmith (an unstable hemoglobin), with irregularly contracted cells (arrows). All specimens were stained with May–Grünwald–Giemsa stain. and in some types of thalassemia is diagnostically significant.

Hemoglobinopathy and Thalassemia

A blood smear is useful in the diagnosis and differential diagnosis of sickle cell disease, particularly if there is an urgent need for diagnosis and if the results of hemoglobin electrophoresis or high-performance liquid chromatography are not instantly available. Patients with sickle cell anemia (in which there is homozygosity for hemoglobin S) have anemia, but those with compound heterozygosity for hemoglobin S and hemoglobin C may have a normal hemoglobin level, and the condition thus may be confused with sickle cell trait if a blood smear is not examined. Consideration of the blood-smear features, of the hemoglobin level, and of the results of a sickle cell solubility test usually permits an accurate diagnosis. The blood smear of a compound heterozygote usually shows target cells, irregularly contracted cells, and boat-shaped cells but few classic sickle cells; typical hemoglobin SC poikilocytes (formed only when hemoglobin S and hemoglobin C are both present) are often seen. Sometimes the blood smear of a compound heterozygote shows only target cells and irregularly contracted cells and cannot be distinguished from the smear in hemoglobin C homozygosity; a positive sickle cell solubility test permits these conditions to be distinguished in an emergency situation (e.g., preoperatively). A blood smear is also important in the diagnosis of an unstable hemoglobin, with irregularly contracted cells and macrocytosis being characteristic of this condition; sometimes there is coexisting thrombocytopenia.

Thrombocytopenia and Thrombocytosis

A blood smear should always be examined for patients with thrombocytopenia, both to confirm the thrombocytopenia and to look for the underlying cause. Falsely low platelet counts may be the result of small clots, platelet clumping. 5Blood-Smear Features Associated with Thrombocytopenia and Errors in the Platelet CountPanel A shows large clumps of platelets that led to a factitiously low platelet count. Panel B demonstrates platelet satellitism. Panel C shows fibrin strands (arrow). Panel D shows the May–Hegglin anomaly, with large platelets and a characteristic neutrophil inclusion (arrow). Panel E shows Candida glabrata (arrows) that led to a sudden, unexpected improvement in the “platelet” count. All specimens were stained with May–Grünwald–Giemsa stain. , platelet satellitism , or abnormally large platelets. Fibrin strands indicate that thrombocytopenia is likely to be factitious. Underlying causes that may be revealed by the blood smear include the May–Hegglin anomaly, microangiopathic thrombopathies, and leukemias and lymphomas. High platelet counts should be confirmed microscopically with a blood smear; falsely high counts may be the result of other particles (red-cell fragments, fragments of leukemic cells, or fungi) being counted as platelets. Examination of the blood smear is also important in patients with thrombocytosis to look for evidence of a myeloproliferative disorder, such as giant platelets, or an increase in the basophil count; the latter is not reliably detected by automated counters. A sudden, unexpected improvement in the platelet count also should be confirmed by blood-smear examination, since such an improvement may be factitious7.

Leukemia, Lymphoma, or Bone Marrow Failure

Blood smears must always be examined when there is unexplained leukocytosis, lymphocytosis, or monocytosis or when the flagging system of an automated instrument suggests the presence of blast cells. Depending on the instrument and the practice of the local laboratory, a flag for atypical or variant lymphocytes may also be an indication for examination of a blood smear, since this flag is sometimes indicative of the presence of blast cells. Low rather than high counts likewise are an indication for a smear, since they may be indicative of aplastic anemia, acute leukemia, hairy-cell leukemia, or infiltration of nonhematopoietic malignant cells into the bone marrow. The role of the blood smear in the diagnosis of leukemia and lymphoma is to suggest a likely diagnosis or range of diagnoses, to indicate which additional tests should be performed, and to provide a morphologic context without which immunophenotyping and other sophisticated investigations cannot be interpreted. For two conditions, Burkitt’s lymphoma. Miscellaneous Conditions in Which the Blood Smear Can Be Diagnostically Important, aPanel A shows Burkitt’s lymphoma, with three basophilic vacuolated lymphoma cells. Hypogranular promyelocytic leukemia is shown in Panel B, with two characteristic bilobed leukemic promyelocytes. Panel C depicts cryoglobulin deposition in a blood sample from a patient with hepatitis C virus infection. Panel D shows target cells (short arrow), acanthocytes (long arrow), and a Howell–Jolly body (arrowhead) — all features of hyposplenism — in a blood smear from a patient with iron-deficiency anemia and splenic atrophy as features of celiac disease. All specimens were stained with May–Grünwald–Giemsa stain. nd acute promyelocytic leukemia, a blood smear is of particular importance because it facilitates rapid diagnosis and specific treatment.

Probable Factitious Results

Members of the laboratory staff should always initiate a blood smear if an automated instrument produces a highly improbable result. Such results may be factitious, resulting from the accidental freezing or heating of the blood, from hyperlipidemia, or from the presence of cold agglutinins, a cryoglobulin, bacteria, or fungi. Factitious results also may stem from unusual characteristics of the blood cells or the plasma, such as a pseudo-neutropenia caused by a myeloperoxidase deficiency that occurs when the automated instrument employs a peroxidase reaction for the identification of neutrophils, eosinophils, and monocytes. Falsely low counts also may result from neutrophil or platelet clumping or from platelet satellitism.


Occasionally, a blood smear leads to a fortuitous diagnosis that can be very important to the patient (Table 2Table 2Fortuitous Observations That May Be of Diagnostic Importance. As an example, the detection of features of unexpected hyposplenism may suggest a congenital absence of the spleen, splenic atrophy, deposition of amyloid in the spleen, infiltration of neoplastic cells (e.g., in leukemia, lymphoma, or carcinoma) in the spleen, previous splenic infarction, or even a splenectomy of which the patient was unaware — in each case putting the patient at risk for complications of hyposplenism. Conversely, the failure to observe expected hyposplenism in a blood smear from a patient who has undergone splenectomy for the treatment of autoimmune thrombocytopenic purpura may indicate that there is functioning residual splenic tissue, either from splenosis or from accessory spleens, that may be responsible for a relapse of the disease.

The Blood Smear as Part of the Medical Record

Sometimes the blood smear provides the primary or the only evidence of a specific diagnosis, such as myelodysplastic syndrome, leukemia, lymphoma, or hemolytic anemia. It is important that, if possible, such blood smears be stored over the long term, just as a tissue that provides a histologic diagnosis is stored over the long term. In practice, such storage is easily achieved if a patient has also had a bone marrow aspirate (since a blood smear should always be stored with an aspirate), but it is harder to achieve if the blood smear alone has provided the diagnosis. Individual laboratories should have a mechanism to make possible the retention of such smears or an image derived from them. Some laboratories retain all smears that have been reviewed by a laboratory hematologist or pathologist; this can create a storage problem, and it is likely that, increasingly, digital images of important abnormal smears will be stored.