Also Known As: Polycythemia, Polycythemia Vera, High red blood cells

Polycythemia (also known as polycythaemia or erythrocytosis) is a disease state in which the proportion of blood volume that is occupied by red blood cells increases. Blood volume proportions can be measured as hematocrit level.

It can be due to an increase in the mass of red blood cells ("absolute polycythemia") or to a decrease in the volume of plasma ("relative polycythemia").

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 or being the recipient twin in a pregnancy undergoing twin to twin transfusion syndrome.

Primary polycythemia

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.[3] Often, excess white blood cells and platelets are also produced. Polycythemia vera 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.[4] A somatic (non-hereditary) mutation (V617F) in the JAK2 gene is found in 95% of cases, though also present in other myeloproliferative disorders.[5]

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 polycythemia vera. In many families, PFCP is due to an autosomal dominant mutation in the EPOR erythropoietin receptor gene.[6]

Secondary polycythemia

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

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 — 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.
  • 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.

Conditions where the secondary polycythemia is not as a result of physiologic adaptation and occurs irrespective of body needs include:

Polycythemia caused by altered oxygen sensing

Inherited mutations in 3 genes which all result in increased stability of Hypoxia Inducible Factors (HIFs), leading to increased erythropoietin production, have been shown to cause erythrocytosis:

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