Polycythemia vera is a chronic myeloproliferative disorder characterized by increased red blood cell mass. The resultant hyperviscosity of the blood predisposes such patients to thrombosis. Polycythemia vera should be suspected in patients with elevated hemoglobin or hematocrit levels, splenomegaly, or portal venous thrombosis. Secondary causes of increased red blood cell mass (e.g., heavy smoking, chronic pulmonary disease, renal disease) are more common than polycythemia vera and must be excluded. Diagnosis is made using criteria developed by the Polycythemia Vera Study Group; major criteria include elevated red blood cell mass, normal oxygen saturation, and palpable splenomegaly. Untreated patients may survive for six to 18 months, whereas adequate treatment may extend life expectancy to more than 10 years. Treatment includes phlebotomy with the possible addition of myelosuppressive agents based on a risk-stratified approach. Agents under investigation include interferon alfa-2b, anagrelide, and aspirin. Consultation with a hematologist is recommended.
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