High-Risk Newborns - Polycythemia

What is polycythemia?

Polycythemia is a condition in which there are too many red blood cells in the blood circulation. It is the opposite of anemia, which results from too few red blood cells in the blood circulation. Polycythemia is also called plethora when it causes a ruddy complexion.

What causes polycythemia?

Polycythemia may be caused by the following:

Who is affected by polycythemia?

Polycythemia may occur with many different conditions. Some of the babies affected by polycythemia include:

Why is polycythemia a concern?

Mild polycythemia may not cause problems. However, too many red blood cells can increase the blood volume or thicken the blood, making it harder to circulate through the blood system and to the organs. Babies can have difficulty breathing and their heart and blood vessels cannot compensate for the extra amount of blood. As the large numbers of cells begin to break down, a substance called bilirubin is produced. Increased bilirubin levels, called hyperbilirubinemia, can cause jaundice, a yellowing of the skin, eyes, and mucous membranes. Seizures can also occur with polycythemia.

What are the symptoms of polycythemia?

Many babies with polycythemia have no visible symptoms of the condition. The following are the most common symptoms of polycythemia. However, each baby may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

The symptoms of polycythemia may resemble other conditions or medical problems. Always consult your baby's doctor for a diagnosis.

How is polycythemia diagnosed?

Laboratory tests show a high hematocrit (red blood cell count) when polycythemia is present. A high hemoglobin (protein in the blood that carries oxygen) level may also help diagnose polycythemia.

Treatment for polycythemia

Specific treatment for polycythemia will be determined by your baby's doctor based on:

Treatment may include:

These treatments are performed through a vein or artery, often the umbilical blood vessels.

Click here to view the
Online Resources of Pregnancy, Birth, and Baby Center


Top of Page return to top of page