polycythemia, condition characterized by an increase in the production of red blood cells, or erythrocytes, in the blood. Primary polycythemia, also called erythremia, or polycythemia vera, is a chronic, progressive disease, most common in middle-aged men. It is characterized by overgrowth of the bone marrow, abnormally increased red blood cell production, and an enlarged spleen. Symptoms, include headache, inability to concentrate, and pain in the fingers and toes. There is a danger of blood clotting or hemorrhage (see thrombosis). Primary polycythemia is treated by radiation, periodic removal of some blood (phlebotomy), or chemotherapy with antimetabolite drugs, e.g., Cytoxan. In secondary polycythemia, or erythrocytosis, the proliferation of red blood cells results from the body's attempt to compensate for other conditions, such as prolonged lack of oxygen at high altitudes or chronic lung or heart insufficiency. Certain tumors are also associated with increased red blood cell production. In secondary polycythemia the treatment is directed toward the underlying cause.
Polycythemia (or polycythaemia or erythrocytosis) is a condition in which there is a net increase in the total number of blood cells, primarily red blood cells, in the body. 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.

Primary polycythemia (Polycythemia vera)

Primary polycythemia, often called 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. Often, excess white blood cells and platelets are also produced. Polycythemia vera is classified as a myeloproliferative disease. Symptoms include headaches, vertigo, and an abnormally enlarged spleen and/or liver. In some cases, affected individuals may have associated conditions including high blood pressure or the 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. Mutations in JAK2 are found in 95% of cases, though also present in other myeloproliferative disorders.

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 (milliliter) 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. This physiologic (meaning normal) 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. Similarly, athletes with primary polycythemia may have a competitive advantage due to greater stamina.

Other causes of secondary polycythemia include smoking, renal or liver tumors, hemangioblastomas in the central nervous system, heart or lung diseases that result in hypoxia, and endocrine abnormalities including pheochromocytoma and adrenal adenoma with Cushing's syndrome. Athletes and bodybuilders who use anabolic steroids or erythropoietin may develop secondary polycythemia.

Secondary polycythemia can be induced directly by phlebotomy to withdraw some blood, concentrate the erythrocytes, and return them to the body.

Chuvash polycythemia

Chuvash polycythemia refers to a familial form of erythrocytosis different than classical polycythemia vera. This involved patients from Chuvashia and is associated with a C598T mutation in the von Hippel-Lindau gene (VHL). A cluster of patients with Chuvash polycythemia have been found in other populations, such as on the Italian island of Ischia, located in the Bay of Naples.

Relative polycythemia

Relative polycythemia is an apparent rise of the erythrocyte level in the blood; however, the underlying cause is reduced blood plasma. Relative polycythemia is often caused by loss of body fluids, such as through burns, dehydration and stress.


See also

Search another word or see polycythemiaon Dictionary | Thesaurus |Spanish
Copyright © 2015 Dictionary.com, LLC. All rights reserved.
  • Please Login or Sign Up to use the Recent Searches feature