Polycythaemia Rubra Vera


What is it?

In polycythaemia rubra vera the body makes too many red blood cells.


What causes it?

There is a problem in bone marrowBone marrow is a soft spongy material which is inside bones. The outside of bones are hard and protective but the inside plays a different role. Bone marrow makes new blood cells. , where new blood cells are made. In polycythaemia rubra vera it becomes overactive and makes too many new red blood cells.


Who gets it?

It is most commonly diagnosed around the age of 60. The cause of the disease is unknown.


What are the symptoms?

Some patients have no symptoms and it can be picked up on a blood test being performed for another reason.
Other patients get symptoms which are caused by having too many blood cells. These symptoms include headaches, ringing in the ears, visual disturbance and dizziness. The blood becomes thicker than normal due to the increase in cells numbers and rarely it can form blood clots which may cause a strokeA stroke is caused by the interuption of blood supply to a region of the brain which leads to this region being unable to function. or deep vein thrombosisA deep vein thrombosis or DVT is clot in one of the veins of the legs (or rarely in the arms). It is important to recognise and treat a DVT to prevent it from spreading to the lungs or elsewhere..


How is it diagnosed?

Bloods tests provide lots of information. They can show that there are too many red blood cells and that the blood is too thick. A specialist blood test can show if the bone marrow is overactive. On occasions when the diagnosis is not clear then a bone marrow biopsy is needed which provides more detailed information and can rule out other diagnosis.


How is it treated?

Patients require regular blood tests looking at how thick the blood is. If it is too thick then 500ml of blood is removed, this is done in exactly the same way as if someone was donating blood. The alternative is to use a drug called hydroxycarbamide.


Further information

Polycythaemia rubra vera at Macmillian cancer support



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Written by: Dr T Rider

Editor: Dr J Newman

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