What is polycythemia vera?
Polycythemia vera (PV) is a rare blood disorder in which there is an increase in all
blood cells, particularly red blood cells. The increase in blood cells makes your
blood thicker and can cause problems with blood flow (circulation). This can lead
to blood clots forming in blood vessels. This can cause strokes or tissue and organ
What causes polycythemia vera?
Polycythemia vera is caused by a genetic change (mutation) that develops during your
lifetime. It's not an inherited genetic disorder. In most cases, it's not known why
What are the symptoms of polycythemia vera?
When you have more blood and it's thicker than normal, problems can occur. Each person’s
symptoms may vary. Symptoms may include:
Lack of energy (fatigue) or weakness
Shortness of breath and trouble breathing while lying down
Vision problems, such as double vision, blurred vision, and blind spots
Inability to concentrate
Face becomes red and warm (flushed)
Heavy menstrual bleeding
Coughing up blood
Itchy skin (often after a hot bath)
High blood pressure
These symptoms may look like other blood disorders or health problems. Always see
your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.
How is polycythemia vera diagnosed?
Your healthcare provider will take your health history and give you a physical exam.
Your provider may also do blood tests. These tests will check the increased number
of red blood cells in your body. They will also check if there are other conditions
that could cause your higher red blood cell count. Your healthcare provider will also
likely do a bone marrow biopsy to look for abnormal cells.
How is polycythemia vera treated?
Treatment will depend on your symptoms, age, and general health. It will also depend
on how severe the condition is.
Treatment may include:
Phlebotomy. This procedure removes blood from your body. At first, this must be done often, such
as every week. Once enough blood has been removed to reduce your body's iron stores
(needed to make blood quickly), you will not need this done as often.
Certain medicines, including chemotherapy. The medicines help stop your bone marrow from making too many blood cells. They also
keep your blood flow and blood thickness closer to normal.
What are possible complications of polycythemia vera?
Polycythemia vera can be fatal if not diagnosed and treated. It can cause blood clots
resulting in a heart attack, stroke, or pulmonary embolism. Liver and spleen enlargement
are other possible complications. In some cases, in can transform into a condition
resulting in bone marrow scarring (fibrosis) or leukemia.
Living with polycythemia vera
There is no cure for polycythemia vera. But correct treatment can help to reduce or
delay any problems. Work with your healthcare provider to create a treatment plan
that fits your needs. You should also be physically active to increase your heart
rate and improve your blood flow.
Other ways to improve your blood flow include:
This condition can cause circulation problems. So, take care of your hands and feet.
Protect them from injuries from cold and heat. For example, always wear shoes, even
in your home. Wear warm gloves and socks during cold weather.
Key points about polycythemia vera
Polycythemia vera is a rare blood disorder in which there is an increase in all blood
cells, particularly red blood cells.
The increase in blood cells makes the blood thicker.
Thick blood can lead blood clots forming in blood vessels. This can cause strokes
or tissue and organ damage.
Symptoms include lack of energy (fatigue) or weakness, headaches, dizziness, shortness
of breath, visual disturbances, nose bleeds, bleeding gums, heavy menstrual periods,
Treatment may include medicines and phlebotomy, a procedure that removes extra blood
from your body.
Sticking to your treatment plan, exercise, enough fluid intake, and staying away from
extreme heat can help prevent or decrease symptoms
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:
Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.
Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells
At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments,
or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.
Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed, and how it will help you. Also
know what the side effects are.
Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.
Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that
Know how you can contact your healthcare provider if you have questions.