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Polycythemia Vera Symptoms: When Blood Becomes Thicker

Medically reviewed by Mae Charisse Antalan, MD · General Practitioner

Written by Red Ricafort · Updated Feb 24, 2023

Polycythemia Vera Symptoms: When Blood Becomes Thicker

What is Polycythemia Vera? What are Polycythemia Vera Symptoms?

Polycythemia vera is a kind of blood cancer. It is characterized by a high concentration of red blood cells produced in the body. In some cases, white blood cells, and platelets or blood-clotting cells, are also overproduced. The condition causes your blood to become thicker. The usual flow of the blood to the organs is slowed down, putting you at risk for blood clots or other complications. Most Polycythemia vera symptoms occur due to the slow blood flow.

Polycythemia Vera Symptoms

Polycythemia vera symptoms in people vary. Some may not notice these symptoms at all. Other people diagnosed with the condition observe vague symptoms like headache, dizziness, or blurred vision.

If you experience the following constantly, contact your health care provider for a check-up:

  • Issues with your vision like blind spots, blurred vision, or double vision
  • Itchy skin, commonly after a hot shower or bath
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Abnormal bleeding in gums, or nosebleeds, or coughing up blood
  • Bruising
  • Difficulty breathing when lying down
  • Stomachaches
  • Confusion
  • Reddish skin, usually in the face, hands, or feet
  • Gout

Other Types of Polycythemia 

The condition of having too high a concentration of red blood cells may be due to other reasons. Here are other kinds of polycythemia based on what causes the condition:

  • Apparent polycythemia. This is caused by lack of plasma, the fluid in your blood. You may otherwise have a normal count of red blood cells. This type of polycthemia vera can be attributed to being overweight, smoking, drinking, and other causes. If you abstain from these, it is possible to improve your condition.
  • Absolute polycythemia. In this case, your body has produced too many red blood cells. This category has 2 main types. Primary polycythemia is when there’s an issue with the produced bone marrow cells that become red blood cells. Secondary polycythemia occurs when an underlying condition causes the overproduction of red blood cells.

Polycythemia Vera Symptoms: Risks and Complications

Polycythemia vera can be experienced by people of any age. However, older men aged 50 to 75 years old are more at risk of developing polycythemia vera. The condition usually occurs to women when they’re younger.

Because this condition affects the blood, untreated polycythemia vera symptoms may lead to fatal complications. The sluggish flow of blood may cause blood clots. Over time, it can lead to heart attack, stroke, and organ enlargement. Other possible complications to look out for are the following:

Blood illness

Other blood disorders may occur, such as stem cells not functioning properly, or even blood or bone marrow cancer.

Enlargement of the spleen

Because your spleen’s function is to clean your blood, polycythemia vera greatly affects it by making it work harder than usual.

Blood clotting

The slower flow of your blood can lead to the formation of blood clots in your system. When blood clots are formed, this can cause problems like heart attack, stroke, or clots in the artery.

Blood clots may cause pulmonary embolism, a potentially deadly blood clot in the lungs.

Contact your doctor immediately for possible treatment if you experience these pulmonary embolism symptoms:

  • Experiencing painful swelling and redness of your legs
  • Feeling out of breath
  • Aches on your chest or upper back pain
  • Fainting
  • A heavy ache in the area of a blood clot

Polycythemia Vera Symptoms: Treatment

Treatments are aimed towards decreasing risks, complications, and problems caused by the symptoms. These include:

  • Blood withdrawals. Occasionally drawing blood reduces your blood volume and lessens your red blood cells.
  • Medications for red blood cells. Your doctor may recommend drugs to reduce the number of your red blood cells if blood withdrawals don’t work.
  • Heart medications. These medications help manage heart problems or high blood pressure.

Key Takeaways

Polycythemia vera can cause multiple serious complications if left untreated. Complications include blood illness, enlargement of organs, blood clotting, and stroke. If you notice possible polycythemia vera symptoms, or if you are at risk, consult your doctor immediately.

Learn about Other Cancers here.


Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Medically reviewed by

Mae Charisse Antalan, MD

General Practitioner

Written by Red Ricafort · Updated Feb 24, 2023

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