Polycythemia Vera

Overview

What is polycythemia vera?

Polycythemia (say: "polly-sigh-thee-me-ah") vera (PV) is a rare disease in which your body makes too many red blood cells. Your blood may become too thick. This causes serious health problems. PV increases the risk of abnormal blood clots, which could lead to a stroke. This disease occurs most often in people who are about 60 years old or older.

How will PV affect my life?

PV is a serious illness that can cause death, especially if it is not treated. However, with new treatments, people who have the disease are living longer, many for a normal life-span.

Symptoms

What are the symptoms of PV?

In its early stages, PV usually doesn’t cause any symptoms. As the disease progresses, symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath

  • Dizziness

  • Itchy or flushed skin

  • Fatigue

  • Headaches

  • A tingling or burning sensation in the hands and feet

Causes & Risk Factors

What causes PV?

PV begins in the bone marrow. Bone marrow is the soft tissue inside bones that makes blood cells. When bone marrow makes too many red blood cells, the result is PV.

Diagnosis & Tests

How will my doctor know if I have PV?

If you have symptoms of PV, your doctor may examine you and order blood tests. Sometimes the disease may be found by accident when you have blood work done for another reason. Your doctor will want you to see a hematologist (a doctor who treats blood disorders) to make the diagnosis. If he or she suspects you may have PV, you may need to have a bone marrow biopsy. This is when a small part of your bone marrow is removed and examined for signs of PV.

Treatment

What is the treatment?

There is no single treatment for PV. Doctors must adjust the treatment for each patient. Treatment may include a phlebotomy (say: "flah-bot-oh-mee"). In this treatment, some of your blood is removed to help keep the number of red blood cells down and lower the risk of blood clots. Treatment may also include a medicine that keeps the bone marrow from making too many red blood cells or to help reduce the risk of blood clots. Doctors can also treat the itchy skin and burning pain that you may experience. There is currently no cure for PV. The goal is to make your life better by treating the symptoms and helping you to live longer.

Other Organizations

Questions to Ask Your Doctor

  • I’ve been diagnosed with polycythemia vera? Am I at risk of a stroke?

  • What causes polycythemia vera?

  • What is the treatment for polycythemia vera?

  • Can polycythemia vera be cured?

  • How can I prevent complications of polycythemia vera?

  • How can I ease the symptoms of polycythemia vera?

Citations

  • Polycythemia Vera by BJ Stuart, LT, MC, USNR, AJ Viera, LCDR, MC, USNR( 05/01/04, http://www.aafp.org/afp/20040501/2139.html)