Erythrocytosis (High red blood cell count)



What is erythrocytosis?

Erythrocytosis is an increase in oxygen-carrying cells in your bloodstream. This is commonly known as a high red blood cell count. Red blood cells transport oxygen from your lungs to tissues throughout your body. A high red blood cell count can result from a condition that limits your oxygen supply or a condition that directly increases red blood cell production.

The definition of a high red blood cell count varies from one medical practice to another. A normal range in adults is generally considered to be 4.35 to 5.65 million red blood cells per microliter (mcL) of blood for men and 3.92 to 5.13 million red blood cells per mcL of blood for women. In children, the threshold for high red blood cell count varies with age and sex.

There are two types of erythrocytosis:

  • Primary erythrocytosis. This type is caused by a problem with cells in the bone marrow, where RBCs are produced. Primary erythrocytosis is sometimes inherited.
  • Secondary erythrocytosis. A disease or the use of certain drugs can cause this type.

Erythrocytosis is sometimes referred to as polycythemia, but the conditions are slightly different:

  • Erythrocytosis is an increase in RBCs relative to the volume of blood.
  • Polycythemia is an increase in both RBC concentration and hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen to the body’s tissues.

How common is erythrocytosis?

Between 44 and 57 out of every 100,000 people have primary erythrocytosis, according to a 2013 review. It can occur in patients in any gender at any age. It can be managed by reducing your risk factors. Please discuss with your doctor for further information.

Which signs and symptoms can erythrocytosis usually be associated with?

Related signs and symptoms include:

  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nosebleeds
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Blurred vision
  • Itching


What causes erythrocytosis?

High red blood cell count may be caused by low oxygen levels, kidney disease or other problems.

Low oxygen levels

Your body may increase red blood cell production to compensate for any condition that results in low oxygen levels, including:

  • Heart disease (such as congenital heart disease in adults)
  • Heart failure
  • A condition present at birth that reduces the oxygen-carrying capacity of red blood cells (hemoglobinopathy)
  • High altitudes
  • COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)
  • Pulmonary fibrosis (scarred and damaged lungs)
  • Other lung diseases
  • Sleep apnea
  • Nicotine dependence (smoking)

Performance-enhancing drugs

Certain drugs stimulate the production of red blood cells, including:

  • Anabolic steroids
  • Blood doping (transfusion)
  • Injections of a protein (erythropoietin) that enhances red blood cell production

Increased red blood cell concentration

Dehydration (If the liquid component of the blood (plasma) is decreased, as in dehydration, the red blood cell count increases. This is due to the red blood cells becoming more concentrated. The actual number of red blood cells stays the same.)

Kidney disease

Rarely, in some kidney cancers and sometimes after kidney transplants, the kidneys might produce too much erythropoietin. This enhances red blood cell production.

Bone marrow overproduction

  • Polycythemia vera
  • Other myeloproliferative disorders

The conditions mentioned above are some common causes of erythrocytosis. Consult with your doctor for an accurate diagnosis.

Risk factors

What increases my risk for erythrocytosis?

You are more likely to experience erythrocytosis if you have any of the conditions mentioned above.

Please consult with your doctor for further information.

When to see your doctor

When should I see my doctor?

A high red blood cell count is usually found when your doctor has ordered tests to help diagnose a condition you have. Talk to your doctor about what your test results mean. A high red blood cell count and results from other tests may indicate the cause of your illness. Or your doctor may suggest additional tests to monitor your condition.

On noticing one of these symptoms or having any questions, please consult with your doctor. Everyone’s body acts differently. It is always best to discuss with your doctor to get the best solutions for your situation.

Lifestyle changes & home remedies

What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage erythrocytosis?

These following lifestyles and home remedies might help you cope with erythrocytosis:

  • Quit smoking
  • Stick to your treatment plan

If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor for the best solutions.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Review Date: January 7, 2019 | Last Modified: January 7, 2019

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