Doctors put together names of diseases frequently out of portions of words. “Poly” means multiple or too many; “cyth” refers to cells; “emia” means the blood. An alarming increase in the number of red blood cells might also be called an erythrocytosis, which merely means a condition of the red blood cells. An excess number of the cells may develop as a result of an insufficient oxygen supply, such as occurs at high altitudes, or as a result of an excess manufacture, producing a disease the cause of which is not known. This true polycythemia is also called Osler’s disease and Vaquez’s disease after physicians who first noticed it.
Polycythemia comes on gradually and persists for ten or twenty years. The person with this condition has constantly a deep red flush which may have a bluish appearance. Usually the spleen and the liver are enlarged. The blood clots easily. Hemorrhages in various parts of the body are not uncommon. Whereas the blood count ordinarily is around five to six million, the count rises in this condition to nine to twelve million cells in each cubic millimeter of blood.
Among unusual causes of secondary polycythemia, in addition to residence at high altitude, are disturbances such as silicosis, which interfere with receipt of oxygen by the lungs; abnormalities of circulation of the blood through the lungs; cases which occur in infants that have been unable to get a good oxygen supply before birth; and even certain tumors of the brain and failure of the adrenal glands. Among methods of treatment now used to control excess production of the cells are X-ray of the bone marrow, giving of radioactive phosphorus and use of the nitrogen mustards.