Polycythemia (also known as polycythaemia, polyglobulia and Erythrocytosis) is a disease state in which the hematocrit (the volume percentage of red blood cells in the blood) and/or hemoglobin concentration are elevated in peripheral blood.

Other namesPolyglobulia
Packed cell volume diagram.svg
Packed cell volume diagram.

It can be due to an increase in the number of red blood cells[1] ("absolute polycythemia") or to a decrease in the volume of plasma ("relative polycythemia").[2] Polycythemia is sometimes called erythrocytosis, but the terms are not synonymous, because polycythemia describes any increase in red blood mass (whether due to an erythrocytosis or not), whereas erythrocytosis is a documented increase of red cell count.

The emergency treatment of polycythemia (e.g., in hyperviscosity or thrombosis) is by phlebotomy (removal of blood from the circulation). Depending on the underlying cause, phlebotomy may also be used on a regular basis to reduce the hematocrit. Myelosuppressive medications such as hydroxyurea are sometimes used for long-term management of polycythemia.[3]

Absolute polycythemiaEdit

The overproduction of red blood cells may be due to a primary process in the bone marrow (a so-called myeloproliferative syndrome), or it may be a reaction to chronically low oxygen levels or, rarely, a malignancy. Alternatively, additional red blood cells may have been received through another process—for example, being over-transfused (either accidentally or, as blood doping, deliberately) or being the recipient twin in a pregnancy, undergoing twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome.[citation needed]

Primary polycythemiaEdit

Primary polycythemias are due to factors intrinsic to red cell precursors. Polycythemia vera (PCV), polycythemia rubra vera (PRV), or erythremia, occurs when excess red blood cells are produced as a result of an abnormality of the bone marrow.[4] Often, excess white blood cells and platelets are also produced. PCV is classified as a myeloproliferative disease. Symptoms include headaches and vertigo, and signs on physical examination include an abnormally enlarged spleen and/or liver. In some cases, affected individuals may have associated conditions including high blood pressure or formation of blood clots. Transformation to acute leukemia is rare. Phlebotomy is the mainstay of treatment. A hallmark of polycythemia is an elevated hematocrit, with Hct > 55% seen in 83% of cases.[5] A somatic (non-hereditary) mutation (V617F) in the JAK2 gene, also present in other myeloproliferative disorders, is found in 95% of cases.[6]

Primary familial polycythemia, also known as primary familial and congenital polycythemia (PFCP), exists as a benign hereditary condition, in contrast with the myeloproliferative changes associated with acquired PCV. In many families, PFCP is due to an autosomal dominant mutation in the EPOR erythropoietin receptor gene.[7] PFCP can cause an increase of up to 50% in the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood; skier Eero Mäntyranta had PFCP, which is considered to have given him a large advantage in endurance events.[8]

Secondary polycythemiaEdit

Secondary polycythemia is caused by either natural or artificial increases in the production of erythropoietin, hence an increased production of erythrocytes. In secondary polycythemia, 6 to 8 million and occasionally 9 million erythrocytes may occur per cubic millimeter of blood. Secondary polycythemia resolves when the underlying cause is treated.[citation needed]

Secondary polycythemia in which the production of erythropoietin increases appropriately is called physiologic polycythemia.

Conditions which may result in a physiologically appropriate polycythemia include:

  • Altitude related – This physiologic polycythemia is a normal adaptation to living at high altitudes (see altitude sickness). Many athletes train at high altitude to take advantage of this effect, which can be considered a legal form of blood doping. Some individuals believe athletes with primary polycythemia may have a competitive advantage due to greater stamina. However, this has yet to be proven due to the multifaceted complications associated with this condition.[citation needed]
  • Hypoxic disease-associated – for example in cyanotic heart disease where blood oxygen levels are reduced significantly, may also occur as a result of hypoxic lung disease such as COPD and as a result of chronic obstructive sleep apnea.
  • Iatrogenic – Secondary polycythemia can be induced directly by phlebotomy (blood letting) to withdraw some blood, concentrate the erythrocytes, and return them to the body.[citation needed]
  • Genetic – Heritable causes of secondary polycythemia also exist and are associated with abnormalities in hemoglobin oxygen release. This includes patients who have a special form of hemoglobin known as Hb Chesapeake, which has a greater inherent affinity for oxygen than normal adult hemoglobin. This reduces oxygen delivery to the kidneys, causing increased erythropoietin production and a resultant polycythemia. Hemoglobin Kempsey also produces a similar clinical picture. These conditions are relatively uncommon.[citation needed]

Conditions where the secondary polycythemia is not caused by physiologic adaptation, and occurs irrespective of body needs include:[citation needed]

Altered oxygen sensingEdit

Inherited mutations in three genes which all result in increased stability of hypoxia-inducible factors, leading to increased erythropoietin production, have been shown to cause erythrocytosis:[citation needed]

Relative polycythemiaEdit

Relative polycythemia is an apparent rise of the erythrocyte level in the blood; however, the underlying cause is reduced blood plasma (hypovolemia, cf. dehydration). Relative polycythemia is often caused by loss of body fluids, such as through burns, dehydration, and stress. A specific type of relative polycythemia is Gaisböck syndrome. In this syndrome, primarily occurring in obese men, hypertension causes a reduction in plasma volume, resulting in (amongst other changes) a relative increase in red blood cell count.[16]


Doctors say that patients may not experience in any notable symptom of PV until the late stages. Although vague, these symptoms might help patients get help in the early years of the progression.

  • Severe headache
  • Dizziness, fatigue, and tiredness
  • Unusual bleeding, nosebleeds
  • Pain
  • Itchiness
  • Numbness or tingling in different body parts[17]

Notable peopleEdit

Polycythemia is linked to increased performance in endurance sports due to the blood being able to store more oxygen.[citation needed] It can also be linked to damage from smoking.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "absolute polycythemia" at Dorland's Medical Dictionary
  2. ^ "relative polycythemia" at Dorland's Medical Dictionary
  3. ^ Spivak, Jerry L. (July 2019). "How I treat polycythemia vera". Blood. 134 (4): 341–352. doi:10.1182/blood.2018834044. ISSN 0006-4971. PMID 31151982.
  4. ^ MedlinePlus Encyclopedia: Polycythemia vera
  5. ^ Jacques Wallach; Interpretation of Diagnostic Tests, 7th Ed.; Lippencott Williams & Wilkins[ISBN missing]
  6. ^ Current Medical Diagnosis & Treatment. McGraw Hill Lange. 2008. p. 438.
  7. ^ OMIMPolycythemia, Primary Familial snd Congenital; PFCP
  8. ^ Guardian newspaper: interview with Malcolm Gladwell, 29 September 2013
  9. ^ Sottas, Pierre-Edouard (1 May 2011). "Prevalence of Blood Doping in Samples Collected from Elite Track and Field Athletes". Clinical Chemistry. 57 (5): 762–769. doi:10.1373/clinchem.2010.156067. PMID 21427381.
  10. ^ Ang SO, Chen H, Hirota K, et al. (December 2002). "Disruption of oxygen homeostasis underlies congenital Chuvash polycythemia". Nat. Genet. 32 (4): 614–21. doi:10.1038/ng1019. PMID 12415268. S2CID 15582610.
  11. ^ Perrotta S, Nobili B, Ferraro M, et al. (January 2006). "Von Hippel-Lindau-dependent polycythemia is endemic on the island of Ischia: identification of a novel cluster". Blood. 107 (2): 514–29. doi:10.1182/blood-2005-06-2422. PMID 16210343. S2CID 17065771.
  12. ^ Percy MJ, Zhao Q, Flores A, et al. (January 2006). "A family with erythrocytosis establishes a role for prolyl hydroxylase domain protein 2 in oxygen homeostasis". Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 103 (3): 654–59. doi:10.1073/pnas.0508423103. PMC 1334658. PMID 16407130.
  13. ^ Percy MJ, Furlow PW, Beer PA, Lappin TR, McMullin MF, Lee FS (September 2007). "A novel erythrocytosis-associated PHD2 mutation suggests the location of a HIF binding groove". Blood. 110 (6): 2193–96. doi:10.1182/blood-2007-04-084434. PMC 1976349. PMID 17579185.
  14. ^ Percy MJ, Furlow PW, Lucas GS, et al. (January 2008). "A gain-of-function mutation in the HIF2A gene in familial erythrocytosis". N. Engl. J. Med. 358 (2): 162–68. doi:10.1056/NEJMoa073123. PMC 2295209. PMID 18184961.
  15. ^ Gale DP, Harten SK, Reid CD, Tuddenham EG, Maxwell PH (August 2008). "Autosomal dominant erythrocytosis and pulmonary arterial hypertension associated with an activating HIF2 alpha mutation". Blood. 112 (3): 919–21. doi:10.1182/blood-2008-04-153718. PMID 18650473. S2CID 14580718.
  16. ^ Stefanini, Mario; Urbas, John V.; Urbas, John E. (July 1978). "Gaisböck's syndrome: its hematologic, biochemical and hormonal parameters". Angiology. 29 (7): 520–33. doi:10.1177/000331977802900703. ISSN 0003-3197. PMID 686487. S2CID 42326090.
  17. ^ "Polycythemia Vera". Mayo Clinic.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  18. ^ Newhart, Bob (2006). I Shouldn't Even Be Doing This!. New York: Hyperion. ISBN 1-4013-0246-7

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