In polycythemia vera (PV), your bone marrow makes too many red blood cells.
At Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (SCCA), our team of experts provides comprehensive diagnostic and medical care along with ongoing monitoring and support for people with PV and related blood disorders.
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What is polycythemia vera?
PV is a type of myeloproliferative neoplasm (MPN) — the name for a group of diseases in which a bone marrow problem leads to increased levels of blood cells. In PV, extra red blood cells circulate in your bloodstream, making your blood thicker than usual. This usually shows up on results of blood tests as a high hemoglobin or hematocrit level.
You may also have more white blood cells and platelets than normal. These can collect in your spleen, causing it to enlarge.
Excess blood cells can lead to health issues, such as bleeding problems and blood clots. In people over 65, PV increases the risk of stroke and heart attack.
Symptoms and diagnosis of polycythemia vera
Some people with PV have no symptoms when their disease is diagnosed. But a routine blood test may show high levels of blood cells. Symptoms may develop as the number of blood cells increases.
Symptoms may include:
- A feeling of pressure or fullness below the ribs on the left side (spleen)
- Double vision or seeing dark or blind spots that come and go
- Itching all over the body, especially after being in warm or hot water
- Reddened face that looks like a blush or sunburn
- Weight loss for no known reason
Besides detecting abnormal blood counts during routine testing, your doctor might suspect PV if you have noticeable signs or symptoms. To confirm the diagnosis, you may need additional blood tests, including tests to check for the JAK2 gene mutation that’s common in PV, and tests of your bone marrow.
Read more about diagnosing MPNs.
Polycythemia vera treatment
If you don’t have any symptoms, you may not need any active treatment right now. But it’s important to see your doctor regularly to monitor your condition. This approach is called watchful waiting. PV is a chronic disease that tends to get worse over time.
SCCA’s team of doctors provides a comprehensive range of treatment options for PV including:
- Phlebotomy — removing blood from your body to decrease your red blood cell counts, relieve symptoms and reduce clot risk
- Aspirin — used at low doses to reduce clot risk
- Hydroxyurea — a medicine to decrease your production of blood cells or the release of blood cells from your bone marrow if you who have had or are at high risk for a blood clot and have very high non-red blood cell counts
- Ruxolitinib (Jakafi) — a medicine that reduces overactive signaling by proteins that may cause your body to make too many blood cells
- Interferon — which stimulates your immune system to help control your blood counts
A blood or bone marrow transplant may be an option for people with severe or advanced MPNs, like PV. This is currently the only type of treatment that has the potential to cure MPNs. The Fred Hutch Bone Marrow Transplant Program at SCCA has performed more bone marrow transplants than any other institution in the world.
Read more about treatment for MPNs.
For more information about PV, visit the MPN Research Foundation website.