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Polycythaemia: Treatment, symptoms, advice and help

About polycythaemia

Polycythaemia is a blood disorder wherein the red blood cell count is increased beyond the normal limits. This disorder may be either primary or secondary. ‘Primary polycythaemia’ (also called Polycythaemia vera) is characterised by some disorder in the process of production of the red blood cells. On the other hand, in ‘secondary polycythaemia’ (also called physiologic polycythaemia), the red blood cell production is influenced by external factors.

Polycythaemia: Incidence, age and sex

‘Polycythaemia vera’ is a rare type of disorder and affects almost 1 in 1 million people. It mainly afflicts elderly individuals, with a higher affinity for men as compared to women.

Signs and symptoms of polycythaemia: Diagnosis

The salient clinical features of polycythaemia include increased redness of the face, bleeding from the gums and occasionally breathlessness. Affected individuals may also experience double vision, headache, weakness, dizziness or itching of the skin. Sometimes small cuts or wounds may exhibit profuse bleeding.

Detailed physical examination by doctor may reveal an enlarged spleen. The diagnosis of polycythaemia is eventually established by blood test which shows increased count of red blood cells.

Causes and prevention of polycythaemia

The cause of polycythaemia vera is genetic mutation and may run in families. Alternatively, secondary polycythaemia may occur due to oxygen deprivation which occurs in condition like high altitude. Secondary polycythaemia may be prevented by increasing oxygenation or acclimatisation when going to higher altitudes.

Polycythaemia: Complications

Polycythaemia increases the red blood cell count in the blood, thus making the consistency of blood thicker than normal. This can lead to frequent clot formation which can result in heart attack or angina and sometimes, stroke. Red blood cell production occurs in the bone marrow and as its production increases beyond normal, it may damage bone marrow and result in myelofibrosis.

Polycythaemia: Treatment

Primary polycythaemia is a life-long disease and the treatment goal is to control the disease progression and minimize its complications. Phlebotomy may be done at regular intervals to let out blood. This procedure helps in reducing the blood concentration. Some medicines like ‘hydroxyurea’ or ‘interferon-alpha’ may also be considered which prevents the bone marrow from producing excess of red blood cells.