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What causes polycythemia vera?

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Polycythemia vera occurs when a bone marrow cell mutation interferes with the production of blood cells. As a result, the bone marrow makes too many of certain types of blood cells, states Mayo Clinic.

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Polycythemia vera, a rare blood disorder that causes the overproduction of blood cells, typically only affects the red blood cells. Most patients who have polycythemia vera are older than 40 years old, MedlinePlus says. Symptoms of the disorder include dizziness, headache, itchiness, excessive bleeding and red skin coloring. Patients might have the disorder for years without noticing any symptoms, Mayo Clinic claims.

The mutation that causes polycythemia vera may result from a gene defect, MedlinePlus says. Since doctors do not know the cause of the defect, the disorder cannot currently be prevented. After doctors diagnose polycythemia vera, they take actions to reduce blood thickness using medications to prevent clotting. One common form of treatment is phlebotomy, which involves the removal of about 1 pint of blood from the body each week until the number of red blood cells drop. Chemotherapy and interferon treatments can also lower red blood cells.

Undiagnosed polycythemia vera can lead to thrombosis, gout, heart failure and acute myelogenous leukemia. Fortunately, most doctors detect symptoms of polycythemia vera before they become serious, MedlinePlus says.

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