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Interpreting Peripheral Blood Smears

INTRODUCTION

Some of the relevant findings in peripheral blood, enlarged lymph nodes, and bone marrow are illustrated in this chapter. Systematic histologic examination of the bone marrow and lymph nodes is beyond the scope of a general medicine textbook. However, every internist should know how to examine a peripheral blood smear.

The examination of a peripheral blood smear is one of the most informative exercises a physician can perform. Although advances in automated technology have made the examination of a peripheral blood smear by a physician seem less important, the technology is not a completely satisfactory replacement for a blood smear interpretation by a trained medical professional who also knows the patient’s clinical history, family history, social history, and physical findings. It is useful to ask the laboratory to generate a Wright’s-stained peripheral blood smear and examine it.

The best place to examine blood cell morphology is the feathered edge of the blood smear where red cells lie in a single layer, side by side, just barely touching one another but not overlapping. The author’s approach is to look at the smallest cellular elements, the platelets, first and work his way up in size to red cells and then white cells.

Using an oil immersion lens that magnifies the cells 100-fold, one counts the platelets in five to six fields, averages the number per field, and multiplies by 20,000 to get a rough estimate of the platelet count. The platelets are usually 1–2 μm in diameter and have a blue granulated appearance. There is usually 1 platelet for every 20 or so red cells. Of course, the automated counter is much more accurate, but gross disparities between the automated and manual counts should be assessed. Large platelets may be a sign of rapid platelet turnover, as young platelets are often larger than old ones; alternatively, certain rare inherited syndromes can produce large platelets. If the platelet count is low, the absence of large (young) platelets may be an indicator of marrow production problems. Platelet clumping visible on the smear can be associated with falsely low automated platelet counts. Clumping may be caused by the anticoagulant into which the blood is drawn. Similarly, neutrophil fragmentation can be a source of falsely elevated automated platelet counts. The absence of platelet granules may be an artifact of the handling of the blood or may indicate marrow disease or a rare congenital anomaly, gray platelet syndrome. Elevated platelet counts usually signify a myeloproliferative disorder or a reaction to systemic inflammation.

Next one examines the red blood cells. One can gauge their size by comparing the red cell to the nucleus of a small lymphocyte. Both are normally about 8-μm wide. Red cells that are smaller than the small lymphocyte nucleus may be microcytic; those larger than the small lymphocyte nucleus may be macrocytic. Macrocytic cells also tend ...

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