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 of stomach bleeding.

What are the potential complications of polycythemia?

While the progression of polycythemia is generally slow and most patients do not experience complications, there can be rare incidences of problems related to polycythemia. People with polycythemia are at increased risk of developing blood clots, which can lead to strokes and heart attacks if untreated. Furthermore, the bone marrow disturbances of polycythemia can lead to myelofibrosis (scarring of the bone marrow) or, in very rare instances, leukemia. Such complications can be life-threatening and should be treated immediately.

You can help minimize your risk of serious complications by following the treatment plan you and your health care professional design specifically for you. Complications of polycythemia include:

  • Blood clots (thrombosis)
  • Enlarged spleen (splenomegaly)
  • Gastrointestinal bleeding
  • Gout (type of arthritis caused by a buildup of uric acid in the joints)
  • Heart failure
  • Leukemia (cancer of the blood or bone marrow)
  • Myelofibrosis (scarring of the bone marrow)
  • Peptic ulcers

References:

  1. Polycythemia vera. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute Diseases and Conditions Index. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/dci/Diseases/poly/poly_whatis.html. Accessed March 28, 2011.
  2. Polycythemia vera. PubMed Health. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001615/. Accessed March 28, 2011.
  3. Spivak JL. The optimal management of polycythaemia vera. Br J Haematol 2002; 116:243.
  4. Bope ET, Kellerman RD (Eds.) Conn’s Current Therapy. Philadelphia: Saunders, 2013.
  5. Domino FJ (Ed.) Five Minute Clinical Consult. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2013.
INTRODUCTION

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

SYMPTOMS

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

CAUSES

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 polycythem... Read more about polycythemiacauses

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.