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Polycythemia Vera


Polycythemia vera (PV)

is a condition that causes your bone marrow to produce too many red blood cells (RBCs). RBCs carry oxygen throughout the body. Too many white blood cells (WBCs) and platelets may also be produced. The extra blood cells make your blood thicker than normal. Blood that is too thick cannot flow easily, so less oxygen is delivered to your body's tissues. Left untreated, PV is life-threatening. PV is usually caused by a gene mutation (change). Your risk for PV increases if you are male or older than 50 years.

Common signs and symptoms of PV:

Signs and symptoms develop slowly, over many years. You may have any of the following:

  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Fatigue, weakness, or weight loss without trying
  • Shortness of breath, or trouble breathing when you lie down
  • Pressure on the left side of your abdomen, abdominal pain, or diarrhea
  • Bulging veins, or blue or purple skin on your face or mucus membranes
  • Itching that may be intense, or numbness or burning pain in your feet or hands
  • High blood pressure, headaches, dizziness, or blurred vision
  • Blood clots, bruising, and bleeding problems
  • Pain and swelling in a joint, usually in a big toe, or bone pain

Call 911 for any of the following:

  • You have any of the following signs of a heart attack:
    • Squeezing, pressure, or pain in your chest that lasts longer than 5 minutes or returns
    • Discomfort or pain in your back, neck, jaw, stomach, or arm
    • Trouble breathing
    • Nausea or vomiting
    • Lightheadedness or a sudden cold sweat, especially with chest pain or trouble breathing
  • You have any of the following signs of a stroke:
    • Numbness or drooping on one side of your face
    • Weakness in an arm or leg
    • Confusion or difficulty speaking
    • Dizziness, a severe headache, or vision loss
  • You have a severe headache or a seizure.
  • You cough up blood.

Seek care immediately if:

  • Your arm or leg feels warm, tender, and painful. It may look swollen and red.
  • You have new or worsening symptoms.
  • You have heavy bleeding that does not stop after 20 minutes of applied pressure.

Contact your healthcare provider if:

  • Your nose or gums bleed.
  • You see blood in your urine.
  • You have a sore or skin changes on your hands or feet, or under your compression stocking.
  • You have more bruises than usual.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.


PV cannot be cured. It will always need to be managed. The goal of treatment is improve symptoms and reduce the risk for problems such as blood clots.

  • Phlebotomy is a procedure used to remove blood from your body. About a pint of blood is removed during a session. The procedure lowers the number of RBCs and thins the blood. Phlebotomy may be done every few days to every few months.
  • Medicines may be given to thin your blood. This will help reduce blood clots. Medicines may also be given to reduce itching or uric acid, or to control stomach acid. Medicine is sometimes used to make bone marrow create fewer RBCs.
  • Aspirin can help thin your blood, and relive bone pain and burning in your hands or feet. Aspirin can cause stomach bleeding in some people. Only take aspirin if directed by your healthcare provider. Do not take more than the recommended amount.
  • Radiation is a procedure used to stop bone marrow cells from producing too many RBCs.

Prevent blood clots:

  • Do not smoke. Nicotine and other chemicals in cigarettes and cigars can increase your risk for blood clots and cause lung damage. Ask your healthcare provider for information if you currently smoke and need help to quit. E-cigarettes or smokeless tobacco still contain nicotine. Talk to your healthcare provider before you use these products.
  • Help keep your blood flowing. Wear support stockings as directed. Support stockings are tight and help push blood up and out of your leg veins. Elevate your feet when you sit. This will help prevent blood from pooling in your leg veins.

  • Exercise as directed. Exercise such as walking helps improve blood flow and prevents blood clots. Ask your healthcare provider which exercises are best for you. Stop if you feel any chest pain or shortness of breath.
  • Drink liquids as directed. Liquids help keep your blood thin. Your healthcare provider may recommend that you drink at least 3 liters (12 cups) of liquid each day. Ask which liquids are best for you.

Manage your symptoms:

  • Prevent bleeding and bruising. PV or blood thinners used to manage it can increase your risk for heavy bleeding and easy bruising. Use an electric razor and soft toothbrush. Floss your teeth gently. Do not play contact sports, such as football. These sports increase the risk for bruising. Get care immediately if you are injured. Ask about other ways to prevent bleeding and bruising. Tell all healthcare providers that you have PV or are taking blood thinners.
  • Protect your hands and feet. Wear gloves outside if the temperature is low. Check your hands and feet for sores caused by blood circulation problems. You may not feel the sores because of the low blood flow.
  • Avoid high temperatures. Do not take hot baths or sit in hot tubs. The heat can increase symptoms such as facial flushing and skin itching. Protect your skin when you are outside in hot weather. Do not use a tanning bed or sun lamp. These can damage your skin.
  • Take cool baths to relive itching. Itching can increase after a hot bath. Cool water may help relive itching. You may want to use oatmeal, corn starch, or a mild moisturizing soap to relieve dryness or itching. Lotion may also help relieve dry skin.

Follow up with your healthcare provider as directed:

You may need ongoing tests or treatment. Write down your questions so you remember to ask them during your visits.

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The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.