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What Are the Effects of Elevated Hematocrit Levels?

By A.M. Boyle
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Elevated hematocrit levels, sometimes referred to as polycythemia or erythrocytosis, can result in a variety of symptoms and effects. Most commonly, a person who has an elevated hematocrit could experience heat intolerance, sweating, weight loss, and fatigue or weakness. The effects of elevated levels could also include bloody stool, bruising or itching skin, joint discomfort, or chest pain. If a person’s hematocrit remains elevated above a certain level for a period of time, he or she may be at high risk of blood clots, heart disease, or stroke.

Hematocrit levels basically measure the number or concentration of red blood cells in the bloodstream. The red blood cells contain the protein hemoglobin, which picks up oxygen and transports it through the blood to the tissues in the body. When there are low oxygen levels in the bloodstream, the hormone erythropoietin stimulates the production of more red blood cells in the bone marrow.

The average percentage of red blood cells in the blood stream for a normal adult male is between 42 and 54 percent. For a female, it is slightly lower, averaging between 38 and 46 percent. When the hematocrit level rises above these percentages, and especially if it rises above 60 percent, the blood can become thicker. Even though the concentration of red blood cells and oxygen in the blood is higher, the blood moves more sluggishly, and the tissues in the body might actually be getting less oxygen than they normally would. This can cause various noticeable effects on a person’s body.

Initially, a person may notice a marked weakness and fatigue. He or she may also experience headaches. Again, these effects are caused by a thicker, less efficient blood flow. Heat intolerance can occur, and a person may react with excessive sweating, dizziness, and fever. Itchy, irritated patches of skin may develop, especially after warm baths or showers. Bluish or purple-colored spots similar to bruises could also appear on the skin in random locations.

When a person has elevated hematocrit levels, he or she might also notice blood in the stool. If the condition continues unchecked, he or she might also experience a dark discoloration of the toes and fingers. Joint and muscle pain can occur, also as a result of the thickening of the blood and restricted blood flow. A person could also experience chest pains, shortness of breath, and weight loss.

Often, if the underlying condition causing the elevated red blood cell count is corrected, the effects will diminish and eventually disappear. If the elevated hematocrit levels continue to increase unchecked, a person is at increased risk of blood clots, heart disease, and stroke. These conditions can be life threatening. It is important, then, if a person has elevated hematocrit levels, the cause is determined and corrected as soon as possible.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is hematocrit?

Their hematocrit determines the percentage of red blood cells in someone's blood. It is given as a proportion of the total blood volume. A higher hematocrit level implies that more oxygen is provided because red blood cells contain hemoglobin, which transports oxygen to every body region. A normal hematocrit range for men and women is 35 to 45 percent for males and 35 to 42 percent for women.

What are the effects of elevated hematocrit levels?

Increasing hematocrit levels may affect the body in several ways. Blood with a high hematocrit might become thicker, making it more challenging to flow through blood vessels. This may raise the risk of heart attack, stroke, and blood clots. Furthermore, high hemoglobin concentrations make dehydration and kidney stones more likely.

Are there any long-term effects of elevated hematocrit levels?

Indeed, having high hematocrit levels may have long-term repercussions. A few of them are an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, heart attacks, strokes, and renal damage. Dehydration, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke are some conditions that may be made more likely by elevated hematocrit levels.

How are elevated hematocrit levels treated?

Different hematocrit levels need varying therapies depending on the underlying cause. Red blood cell transfusions, iron supplements, and vitamin B12 supplements are all alternatives for treating anemia. If dehydration is the primary cause, increasing fluid intake and replenishing lost electrolytes may be employed. If the cause is an underlying medical condition, such as renal illness or cancer, therapy may involve medicines or other treatments.

What lifestyle changes can I make to reduce my hematocrit levels?

Your hematocrit levels may be lowered by changing your way of life. Eating a balanced diet that includes plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, healthy grains, and lean meats may lower your hematocrit levels. You can also reduce your hematocrit levels by staying hydrated, exercising often, and quitting smoking. If you have a medical problem, following your doctor's recommendations may also assist in lowering your hematocrit levels.

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Discussion Comments

By anon950550 — On May 11, 2014

Testosterone replacement therapy will cause polycythemia in some men. Blood donation or therapeutic phlebotomy is the typical treatment if there Testosterone Levels are appropriate under treatment.

Body builders and athletic use of various steroids and other drugs may also cause polycythemia.

By Rotergirl — On Jan 26, 2014

@Lostnfound: The little research I did said polycythemia could be hereditary and there wasn't necessarily an underlying cause. Also, one of the more common treatments is just to go to the doctor and have a pint of blood taken, which apparently is a good short term remedy.

My research also showed doctors may also prescribe a low-dose aspirin regimen for people with this disease, so their blood will be thinner and less prone to inappropriate clotting. I think this is one of those diseases where the cause is pretty much unknown. At least there are some effective treatments for it.

By Lostnfound — On Jan 25, 2014

So what causes this condition? The article mentions underlying conditions, but doesn't say what they are. That would be nice to know.

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