Polycythemia (High Red Blood Cell Count) (cont.)

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What are the risk factors for polycythemia?

  • Hypoxia from long standing (chronic) lung disease and smoking are common causes of polycythemia. Therefore, smoking can be significant risk factor for polycythemia.
  • Chronic carbon monoxide (CO) exposure can also be risk factor for polycythemia. Hemoglobin has a higher affinity for CO than for oxygen; therefore, as it replaces oxygen in favor of CO, polycythemia may ensue to compensate for the low oxygen carried by hemoglobin.
  • Chronic carbon monoxide exposure is a risk factor for people working in underground tunnels or parking garages, cab drivers in highly polluted and congested cities, or workers in factories with exposure to engine exhaust.
  • People living at high altitudes may also be at risk of developing polycythemia due to low environmental oxygen levels.
  • People with genetic mutations and familial types of polycythemia and certain hemoglobin abnormalities also carry risk factors for this condition as mentioned in earlier sections.

What are the symptoms of polycythemia?

Symptoms of polycythemia can be none to minimal in many people. There are some general and non-specific symptoms that can be seen with polycythemia. Some of these include:

In patients with polycythemia vera, other blood disorders are also very common. Thus, bleeding problems or clotting events may be seen in these patients. Itching after showers or baths (post-bath pruritus) can also be seen in patients with polycythemia vera for unclear reasons. Joint pains also common in patients with polycythemia vera. Tender redness of the palms and soles is called erythromelalgia.

Symptoms of secondary polycythemia may be more closely attributed to the underlying condition, such as, chronic lung disease, than to polycythemia itself. Therefore, shortness of breath, chronic cough, sleep disturbance (sleep apnea), dizziness, poor exercise tolerance, or fatigue may be common in patients with polycythemia.

If polycythemia is related to kidney cancer, liver cancer, or other erythropoietin secreting tumors, the symptoms of these conditions, such as, weight loss, abdominal pain or fullness, or jaundice may be predominant.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 1/22/2014

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