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Polycythemia: Causes and Treatment

Polycythemia: Causes and Treatment

Polycythemia is a medical condition that emerges due to rise in the amount of body fluid containing red blood cells in circulation. People suffering from polycythemia disorder may experience larger than normal volumes of red blood cells in their body system, which may lead to increased hematocrit. Polycythemia is caused by polycythemia vera, which is a malignant hematologic disorder, and other secondary causes such as lung, heart or kidney diseases. Studies have revealed that people living at high altitudes have higher chances of suffering polycythemia due to a bigger amount of hematocrits, which forms as a result of decreased oxygen tension with high elevation (Perrotta et al., 2006). However, polycythemia vera is a rare disorder; its frequency is only up to seven occurrences in every one million persons. In addition, polycythemia is mostly prevalent among the older people, 60 years old and above, and the newborns.

Causes and Eeffects

Polycythemia is a result of decreased haemoglobin and packed cell volume compared to normal red cells masses. The condition is caused by reduced plasma volume, which may be related to alcohol consumption or smoking. Clinically, the problem emanates from patients with vascular thrombosis that comes from the increased volume of red blod cells (Perrotta et al., 2006). In many cases, thrombosis increases with age, which can explain why older people are more at risk of suffering from this disorder. Thrombotic events occur with the CNS as well as peripheral vascular systems (Perrotta, et al., 2006), which can lead to series of stroke and pulmonary emboli.

The disease is a rare condition that affects mostly men aged 60 and above. One important aspect of this disease is that it prevails more among men than women, and sometimes affects toddlers. Babies who suffer from polycythemia are believed to have received too much blood from placenta during birth, which may also be as a result of a placenta that is not working properly. Mothers who live in high altitudes during pregnancy can cause their babies to suffer from the disorder. 

Although no one clearly knows what initially causes polycythemia vera, there are several factors that have been found in relation to the more common secondary polycythemia. First, low oxygen concentration causes haemoglobin or red blood cells build-up. In this case, since there is oxygen shortage in the blood stream, the body responds to this shortfall by producing more haemoglobin (, n.d). The production of haemoglobin does not stop; as a consequence, the volume is too much for a body to contain such an amount (Percy et al., 2006). Those living in high altitudes may also suffer polycythemia because less oxygen in these areas may trigger the condition. Another vulnerable group are those suffering from chronic heart, lung or kidney diseases. Those who abuse alcohol or heavy smokers are also at risk. For smokers, it is revealed that heavy smoking leads to high level of carbon monoxide in the blood, which may provoke the body to make more red blood cells to counter its effects (

Symptoms and Medical Attention

Polycythemia can be revealed only by carrying out a test on full haemoglobin count. However, some of the most common early symptoms are body itching after one has taken a bath, face or hands flushing, general body weakness, headache, poor vision, and feeling of heaviness in the head (, n.d). In the extreme cases, a person may experience high blood pressure. Infants, on the other hand, may experience poor eating habit, low blood sugar and abnormal breathing. Although seeking doctor’s advice is recommended when these symptoms are seen in babies, the condition is not necessarily a serious issue, hence requires no treatment (, n.d). However, adults who suffer from the condition must seek treatment, as failure to do so may lead to death from stroke or heart attack.



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