Symptoms and Signs of Polycythemia Vera (High Red Blood Cell Count)

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Medically Reviewed on 10/25/2022

Doctor's Notes on Polycythemia Vera (High Red Blood Cell Count)

Polycythemia refers to an elevated number of red blood cells (called erythrocytes) in the blood. This can occur either as a primary condition in which the bone marrow produces too many red blood cells (called polycythemia vera) or it may occur as a reaction to other diseases and conditions (such as hypoxia or low oxygen levels due to any reason) that drive the body to produce an increased number of red blood cells. 

Symptoms and signs of polycythemia can be non-specific and may include:

Other associated signs and symptoms may include:

The particular signs and symptoms depend on the reason for the elevated red blood cell count.

What Is the Treatment for Polycythemia Vera?

Treatment for high red blood cell count may include one or a combination of the following:

  • Frequent withdrawals of blood from the body through a vein (similar to donating blood)
  • Medications to reduce the number of red blood cells (for example, hydroxyurea, busulfan, and interferon alfa)
  • Medications to control symptoms such as itching
  • Lifestyle modifications including avoiding low-oxygen environments or extreme temperatures, smoking cessation, and exercise
  • Medications to manage heart or blood vessel disease and/or diabetes

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Kasper, D.L., et al., eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th Ed. United States: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.