Medical Q&As

Polycythaemia - what is it?

What is polycythaemia and how does it affect ones everyday living? Is it a serious illness and what is the life expectancy?

Polycythaemia is a pathological diagnosis rather than a clinical one. In other words it is not an actual disease diagnosis but rather a descriptive term that refers to a marked increase in the number of red cells in the blood. There are many causes for polycythaemia. Newborn babies have polycythaemia as do people living at high altitude. In those situations the increase in red cells is physiological and can be considered normal. It can be associated with a diverse range of disease from emphysema to congenital heart disease. It can also be associated with disorders of the marrow, glandular disorders such as Cushing’s disease, kidney disease and sometimes it can be associated with massive fibroids. So the causes of polycythaemia are quite varied and the prognosis is determined by the underlying condition giving rise to the polycythaemia. Therefore it is not possible to make a general statement about seriousness or life expectancy. Again those issues relate to the underlying cause.