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Red cell distribution width is a predictor of mortality in the general population. The prevalence of increased red cell distribution width and its significance in the intensive care unit are unknown. The objective of this study was to investigate the association between red cell distribution width at the initiation of critical care and all cause mortality.Multicenter observational study.Two tertiary academic hospitals in Boston, MA.A total of 51,413 patients, aged ≥18 yrs, who received critical care between 1997 and 2007.None.The exposure of interest was red cell distribution width as a predictor of mortality in the general population. The prevalence of increased red cell distribution width and its significance in the intensive care unit are unknown and categorized a priori in quintiles as ≤13.3%, 13.3% to 14.0%, 14.0% to 14.7%, 14.7% to 15.8%, and >15.8%. Logistic regression examined death by days 30, 90, and 365 postcritical care initiation, inhospital mortality, and bloodstream infection. Adjusted odds ratios were estimated by multivariable logistic regression models. Adjustment included age, sex, race, Deyo–Charlson index, coronary artery bypass grafting, myocardial infarction, congestive heart failure, hematocrit, white blood cell count, mean corpuscular volume, blood urea nitrogen, red blood cell transfusion, sepsis, and creatinine. Red cell distribution width was a particularly strong predictor of all-cause mortality 30 days after critical care initiation with a significant risk gradient across red cell distribution width quintiles after multivariable adjustment: red cell distribution width 13.3% to 14.0% (odds ratio [OR], 1.19; 95% confidence interval [CI], 1.08–1.30; p <.001); red cell distribution width 14.0% to 14.7% (OR, 1.28; 95% CI, 1.16–1.42; p <.001); red cell distribution width 14.7% to 15.8% (OR, 1.69; 95% CI, 1.52–1.86; p <.001); red cell distribution width >15.8% (OR, 2.61; 95% CI, 2.37–2.86; p <.001), all relative to patients with red cell distribution width ≤13.3%. Similar significant robust associations postmultivariable adjustments are seen with death by days 90 and 365 postcritical care initiation as well as inhospital mortality. In a subanalysis of patients with blood cultures drawn (n = 18,525), red cell distribution width at critical care initiation was associated with the risk of bloodstream infection and remained significant after multivariable adjustment. The adjusted risk of bloodstream infection was 1.40- and 1.44-fold higher in patients with red cell distribution width values in the 14.7% to 15.8% and >15.8% quintiles, respectively, compared with those with red cell distribution width ≤13.3%. Estimating the receiver operating characteristic area under the curve shows that red cell distribution width has moderate discriminative power for 30-day mortality (area under the curve = 0.67).Red cell distribution width is a robust predictor of the risk of all-cause patient mortality and bloodstream infection in the critically ill. Red cell distribution width is commonly measured, inexpensive, and widely available and may reflect overall inflammation, oxidative stress, or arterial underfilling in the critically ill.