What causes polycythemia?

The exact causes of polycythemia are not known. There is evidence, however, that mutations (changes) in specific genes are related to the development of the disease. These mutations occur during an individual’s lifetime and are not passed on from parents to their children. Only in very rare cases is polycythemia inherited.

A second type of polycythemia, called secondary polycythemia, occurs when the body is deprived of oxygen for extended periods of time, such as in heavy smokers. In secondary polycythemia, the body overproduces a hormone called erythropoietin. Erythropoietin is in charge of regulating the body’s supply of red blood cells. When overproduced, erythropoietin can cause thickening of the blood, leading to the symptoms of polycythemia. Often, this type of polycythemia can be treated by addressing the cause of oxygen shortage.

Causes of secondary polycythemia

Secondary polycythemia can occur with a number of conditions that result in lowered oxygen levels in the blood including:

  • Heavy smoking
  • Residing at high altitude
  • Severe heart or lung disease that limits oxygen delivery to tissues

What are the risk factors for polycythemia?

A number of factors increase the risk of developing polycythemia. Not all people with risk factors will get polycythemia. Risk factors for polycythemia include:

  • Age over 60 years
  • Excessive smoking
  • Male gender
  • Prolonged exposure to low oxygen levels (such as due to smoking)

What is polycythemia?

Polycythemia is a blood condition in which the bone marrow makes excess blood cells, primarily red blood cells, but also platelets and white blood cells. The extra cells cause a thickening of the blood, which increases the risk of blood clotting, in turn potentially causing strokes, heart attacks, and other complications. While the exact cause of polycythemia is not known, genetic changes are t... Read more about polycythemiaintroduction


What are the symptoms of polycythemia?

Symptoms of polycythemia include symptoms related to excessive thickening of the blood, such as reddened face, bleeding of the gums, dizziness, and itchiness. Polycythemia can also affect the eyes and ears, leading to blurred vision or tinnitus. In more serious cases of polycythemia, thrombosis (clotting) can develop, leading to heart attack or stroke.

Common symptoms of polyc... Read more about polycythemiasymptoms


How is polycythemia treated?

Polycythemia is treated by thinning the blood to keep clots from forming. This can be performed by periodic blood draws to reduce red blood cell count. In some cases, medications may be administered to suppress the bone marrow and reduce blood cell counts, including hydroxyurea and interferon. Aspirin may also be used to prevent blood clots, although this is less common due to an increased risk... Read more about polycythemiatreatments

Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Annual Review Date: Sep 20, 2013 Copyright: © Copyright 2014 Health Grades, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Health Grades, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the HealthGrades User Agreement.