Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. For regularly updated information on a variety of health topics, please visit familydoctor.org, the AAFP patient education website.

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Am Fam Physician. 2004;69(9):2146

What is polycythemia vera?

Polycythemia (say: polly-sigh-thee-me-ah) vera (PV) is a disease in which your body makes too many red blood cells. Your blood may become too thick, causing serious health problems. PV may cause shortness of breath, dizziness, itchy or flushed skin, fatigue, and headaches. Also, your hands and feet may become blue and tender. Sometimes a person with PV vera may have abnormal blood clots, which may lead to a stroke. This disease rarely occurs early in life. Most cases occur in people around 60 years of age.

What causes PV?

PV may begin with a bone marrow problem. 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.

How will my doctor know that I have PV?

If you have symptoms of PV, your doctor may order blood tests and examine you. Sometimes the disease may be found by accident when you have blood work done for other reasons. Your doctor will need to speak with a hematologist (a doctor who treats blood disorders) to make the diagnosis.

How will PV affect my life?

PV is a serious illness that can cause death. Some of the problems that may occur are strokes and blood clots. With new treatments, people with the disease are living longer.

What is the treatment?

There is no single treatment for PV. Doctors must adjust the treatment to each patient. Treatment may include a phlebotomy (say: fluh-bot-oh-mee). In this treatment, some of your blood is withdrawn to help keep the number of red blood cells down. Treatment also may include several medicines that keep the bone marrow from making too many cells.

Doctors also will try to treat the itchy skin and burning pain that may occur. There is no cure for PV. The goal is to maintain quality of life by treating the symptoms and extending life expectancy.

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