Signs, Symptoms, and Complications of Polycythemia Vera

Polycythemia vera (PV) develops slowly. The disease may not cause signs or symptoms for years.

When signs and symptoms are present, they're the result of the thick blood that occurs with PV. This thickness slows the flow of oxygen-rich blood to all parts of your body. Without enough oxygen, many parts of your body won't work normally.

The signs and symptoms of PV include:

  • Headaches, dizziness, and weakness
  • Shortness of breath and problems breathing while lying down
  • Feelings of pressure or fullness on the left side of the abdomen due to an enlarged spleen (an organ in the abdomen)
  • Double or blurred vision and blind spots
  • Itching all over (especially after a warm bath), reddened face, and a burning feeling on your skin (especially your hands and feet)
  • Bleeding from your gums and heavy bleeding from small cuts
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Fatigue (tiredness)
  • Excessive sweating
  • Very painful swelling in a single joint, usually the big toe (called gouty arthritis)

In rare cases, people who have PV may have pain in their bones.

Polycythemia Vera Complications

If you have PV, the thickness of your blood and the slowed blood flow can cause serious health problems.

Blood clots are the most serious complication of PV. Blood clots can cause a heart attack or stroke. They also can cause your liver and spleen to enlarge. Blood clots in the liver and spleen can cause sudden, intense pain.

Slowed blood flow also prevents enough oxygen-rich blood from reaching your organs. This can lead to angina (chest pain or discomfort) and heart failure. The high levels of red blood cells that PV causes can lead to stomach ulcers, gout, or kidney stones.

Some people who have PV may develop myelofibrosis (MY-e-lo-fi-BRO-sis). This is a condition in which your bone marrow is replaced with scar tissue. Abnormal bone marrow cells may begin to grow out of control.

This abnormal growth can lead to acute myelogenous (my-eh-LOJ-eh-nus) leukemia (AML), a cancer of the blood and bone marrow. This disease can worsen very quickly.


Source: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, National Institutes of Health.