The Rh factor (ie, Rhesus factor) is a red blood cell surface antigen that was named after the monkeys in which it was first discovered. Rh incompatibility, also known as Rh disease, is a condition that occurs when a woman with Rh-negative blood type is exposed to Rh-positive blood cells, leading to the development of Rh antibodies.
Rh incompatibility can occur by 2 main mechanisms. The most common type occurs when an Rh-negative pregnant mother is exposed to Rh-positive fetal red blood cells secondary to fetomaternal hemorrhage during the course of pregnancy from spontaneous or induced abortion, trauma,
invasive obstetric procedures, or normal delivery. Rh incompatibility can also occur when an Rh-negative female receives an Rh-positive blood transfusion. In part, this is the reason that blood banks prefer using blood type “O negative” or “type O, Rh negative,” as the universal donor type in emergency situations when there is no time to type and crossmatch blood.
The most common cause of Rh incompatibility is exposure from an Rh-negative mother by Rh-positive fetal blood during pregnancy or delivery. As a consequence, blood from the fetal circulation may leak into the maternal circulation, and, after a significant exposure, sensitization occurs leading to maternal antibody production against the foreign Rh antigen.
Once produced, maternal Rh immunoglobulin G (IgG) antibodies persist for life and may cross freely from the placenta to the fetal circulation, where they form antigen-antibody complexes with Rh-positive fetal erythrocytes and eventually are destroyed, resulting in a fetal alloimmune-induced hemolytic anemia.
Although the Rh blood group systems consist of many antigen subtypes (eg, D, C, c, E, e), the D antigen is the most immunogenic; therefore, it most commonly is involved in Rh incompatibility.
Recommendations for screening for Rh incompatibility are available from the US Preventive Services Task Force.