Polycythemia (Elevated Red Blood Cell Count)

  • Medical Author:
    Siamak N. Nabili, MD, MPH

    Dr. Nabili received his undergraduate degree from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), majoring in chemistry and biochemistry. He then completed his graduate degree at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). His graduate training included a specialized fellowship in public health where his research focused on environmental health and health-care delivery and management.

  • Medical Editor: Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD
    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Dr. Charles "Pat" Davis, MD, PhD, is a board certified Emergency Medicine doctor who currently practices as a consultant and staff member for hospitals. He has a PhD in Microbiology (UT at Austin), and the MD (Univ. Texas Medical Branch, Galveston). He is a Clinical Professor (retired) in the Division of Emergency Medicine, UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, and has been the Chief of Emergency Medicine at UT Medical Branch and at UTHSCSA with over 250 publications.

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Can polycythemia be prevented?

  • Polycythemia due to a secondary cause such as long standing smoking or exposure to carbon monoxide can be prevented by omitting these risks.
  • Reducing risk factors for heart failure, such as, controlling high blood pressure and diabetes mellitus, can potentially reduce the risk of polycythemia.
  • Congenital and primary polycythemia disorders, however, are not preventable.

What is the outlook (prognosis) for polycythemia?

The outlook on polycythemia depends on the underlying cause. Overall the general outlook is favorable for people with this condition, especially those with secondary causes. The outlook for primary polycythemia is fair. While it is typically incurable and long-standing, for many people, it is controllable and treatable. For example, untreated, polycythemia vera (PV) was initially thought to have a poor prognosis with a life expectancy of one to two years from the time of diagnosis. However, polycythemia vera prognosis is now greatly improved to 10-15 years survival after diagnosis with treatment by phlebotomy alone. The addition of medications, such as, hydroxyurea or aspirin may improve survival even more.

Medically reviewed by Avrom Simon, MD; Board Certified Preventative Medicine with Subspecialty in Occupational Medicine


Ma X, Vanasse G, Cartmel B, Wang Y, Selinger HA.;Prevalence of polycythemia vera and essential thrombocythemia.Am J Hematol. 2008 May;83(5):359-62. doi: 10.1002/ajh.21129.Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, Connecticut, USA.

Spivak, JL, Silver, RT, The revised World Health Organization diagnostic criteria for polycythemia vera, essential thrombocytosis, and primary myelofibrosis: an alternative proposal http://bloodjournal.hematologylibrary.org/content/112/2/231.full.

Medscape. "Polycythemia."

Medscape. "Polycythemia, Secondary."

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

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 2/23/2016

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