Polycythemia vera

By Medically reviewed by hellodoktor


What is polycythemia vera?

Polycythemia vera is a slow-growing type of blood cancer characterized too many blood cells produced by the bone marrow. It affects all type of blood cells, but the red blood cells are most affected. This increase in blood cells can lead to some complications such as increased risk of blood clotting. The symptoms of polycythemia vera develop slowly. You can have the condition for years before noticing the symptoms.

With early treatment, polycythemia vera might cause just little problems. However, if left untreated, polycythemia vera can be life-threatening and lead to more severe blood cancer.

How common is polycythemia vera?

This health condition isn’t common. It occurs more often in men than in women. It is not usually seen in people under age 40. Please discuss with your doctor for further information.


What are the symptoms of polycythemia vera?

The common symptoms of polycythemia vera are:

  • Trouble breathing when lying down;
  • Dizziness;
  • Excess bleeding;
  • Full feeling in the left upper abdomen (due to enlarged spleen);
  • Headache;
  • Itchiness, especially after a warm bath;
  • Red skin coloring, especially of the face;
  • Shortness of breath;
  • Symptoms of blood clots in veins near the skin surface (phlebitis);
  • Bluish skin color;
  • Fatigue;
  • Red skin spots;
  • Vision problems

Because polycythemia vera causes your blood to thicken and slows blood flow, it increases your risk of developing blood clots. Those blood clots can travel around through blood vessels then struck anywhere leading to most serious cases such as stroke (brain vessels) or myocardial infarction (heart arteries). Other complications involve:

  • Enlarged spleen (splenomegaly): Your spleen need to work harder to filter the increased blood cell level.
  • Skin problems: You might experience itchiness, burning, tingling on your arms, legs, hands or feet; and redness on your face.
  • Problems due to high levels of red blood cells: You might develop open sores on the inside lining of your stomach, upper small intestine or esophagus (peptic ulcers) and inflammation in your joints (gout).
  • Polycythemia vera might lead to other conditions, such as myelofibrosis, myelodysplastic syndrome, and acute leukemia.

There may be some symptoms not listed above. If you have any concerns about a symptom, please consult your doctor.

When should I see my doctor?

You should contact your doctor if you have any of the following:

  • Feeling sudden numbness, weakness, or paralysis on one side of your body. This usually occur in your face, arm or leg;
  • Experiencing difficulty speaking or understanding speech;
  • Having sudden vision loss;
  • Having sudden loss of balance, dizziness or loss of coordination caused by severe headache;
  • Having stiff neck, facial pain, pain between your eyes, vomiting or altered consciousness;
  • Confusion or problems with memory, spatial orientation or perception.


What causes polycythemia vera?

There is no clear cause of polycythemia vera. Normally your bone marrow produces three types of blood cells: red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets. Because of the defected gene named JAK2V617F, the bone marrow produces too many blood cells, especially red blood cells. Researchers also believe that the mutation is acquired rather than inherited from parents.

Risk factors

What increases my risk for polycythemia vera?

There are many risk factors for polycythemia vera, such as:

  • Age: People older 60 are more likely to have polycythemia vera.
  • Gender: Males are more likely to develop polycythemia vera.

Diagnosis & treatment

The information provided is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult with your doctor for more information.

How is polycythemia vera diagnosed?

It is often determined when you have blood tests. Some tests your doctor can use to confirm the diagnosis include:

  • Bone marrow biopsy;
  • Complete blood count with differential;
  • Comprehensive metabolic panel;
  • Erythropoietin level;
  • Genetic test for the JAK2V617F mutation;
  • Oxygen saturation of the blood;
  • Red blood cell mass;
  • Vitamin B12 level.

How is polycythemia vera treated?

Treatment aims to reduce blood thickness and prevent bleeding and blood clotting. To reduce blood thickness, a method called phlebotomy is applied, in which a certain amount of blood is drawn out of your veins every week to decrease the number of red blood cells. The time of treatment depends on your condition, you might need more than one treatment of this method.

Medications are also used, including:

  • Low-dose aspirin are used to reduce blood clot and pain. Aspirin is used in low-dosage to avoid stomach bleeding.
  • Medication to decrease blood cells: hydroxyurea, interferon, anagrelide(lower platelet counts), ruxolitinib (Jakafi).

Therapy to reduce itching: medications that are normally used to treat depression, called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), may be helpful in relieving itching.

Lifestyle changes & Home remedies

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

The following lifestyles and home remedies might help you cope with polycythemia vera:

  • Moderate exercise, such as walking, can improve blood circulation and avoid blood clotting.
  • Avoid tobacco as it can increase your risk of heart attack or stroke due to blood clots.
  • Taking a cool bath or shower can help reduce itching. Don’t scratch your skin and use moisturizer to keep your skin healthy.
  • Avoid extreme temperatures to avoid risk of poor blood circulation. Dress appropriately to the weather where you live.
  • Watch for sores on your hands and feet.

If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.

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

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