Common Causes Of High Hemoglobin Levels (Polycythemia)

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Causes Of High Hemoglobin Levels

Many of us don't consider high hemoglobin levels a problem, but it can be. More importantly, the underlying cause might need urgent attention – from something as easily fixed as dehydration to a more serious condition like a heart or pulmonary ailment. Smoking, excessive drinking, and high exposure to carbon monoxide can also be triggers. Babies born post-term or at high altitudes or who have diabetic mothers can also develop high hemoglobin levels.

Anemia or low hemoglobin levels and low red blood cell count is a problem we hear of quite often. But some people face an issue that’s quite the opposite. Elevated levels of hemoglobin or hematocrit can cause you to feel faint, impair your vision, and leave you with other problems like an enlarged spleen. Knowing the causes can help you find the right treatment and fix the problem as soon as possible.

Why Is Hemoglobin So Important?

Red blood cells and hemoglobin are integral to the healthy functioning of your body. The hemoglobin itself transports oxygen to various parts of your body, keeping the tissues supplied with adequate levels of oxygen. The higher your red blood cell count, the more the hemoglobin and, by extension, the better equipped your body will be to ensure oxygen is available everywhere.1

Normal Levels Of Hemoglobin And Hematocrit

A blood test should help you test your hemoglobin levels

  • A normal healthy adult male should have hemoglobin levels of 13.8 to 17.2 g/dL.
  • A normal healthy adult female should have a measure 12.1 to 15.1 g/dL.
  • For newborns, the normal levels are 14 to 24 g/dL and for infants a reading of 9.5 to 13 g/dL is normal.2

Hematocrit tests, on the other hand, measure the levels of red blood cells in your total blood volume.

  • Normal levels for men are between 40.7 and 50.3 percent.
  • For women, the normal range is between 36.1 and 44.3 percent.
  • A hematocrit range of 45 to 61 percent is considered normal for newborns while infants should have levels of 32 to 42 percent.3

Symptoms Of High Levels Of Hemoglobin Or Red Blood Cells

Polycythemia, the opposite of anemia, is a condition in which there is an excess of red blood cells and high hemoglobin levels. In case you have polycythemia, you may experience headaches, dizziness, problems with vision, and flushing. Your spleen may also be enlarged.4 In addition, babies who have this problem of elevated hemoglobin linked to polycythemia may have reddish purple colored skin or may be jaundiced with yellowish eyes and skin.They are also lethargic and don’t feed properly. They might experience respiratory distress or breathe rapidly. Their blood sugar levels may also be low.5

Causes Of High Hemoglobin Levels And Red Blood Cell Counts

This increase in red blood cells and hemoglobin is triggered by certain health problems, certain environmental factors, or physiological problems. Here’s a look at the causes of high hemoglobin and hematocrit levels. Those who develop the problem due to genetic mutations have “primary polycythemia”, while those who get it due to some of the other causes listed below has “secondary polycythemia.” Stanford Children’s Health.6

1. Genetic Mutation: Polycythemia Vera

For some people, the high hemoglobin and hematocrit levels are due to a genetic mutation. This kind of increased level of red blood cells is known as primary polycythemia or polycythemia vera. Interestingly, it isn’t an inherited condition, yet some families are more prone to this mutation to the JAK2 gene that is responsible for red blood cell production. Not enough is known yet about why this mutation occurs, but it is clear that this mutation results in elevated red blood cell and hemoglobin levels.7

This bone marrow disease causes your bone marrow to make excessive red blood cells and is more common in men than in women. It also tends to show up later in life and is rare in anyone under 40.8

2. Dehydration

One of the most common reasons for high readings on your hematocrit test is less ominous than you’d think. It could boil down to your being very dehydrated. In fact, the hematocrit is even prescribed to check if someone is badly dehydrated! When the fluid levels in your blood decline due to inadequate intake of fluids and water, the red blood cell count per volume of fluid goes up. In reality, the red blood cell count itself hasn’t risen but just appears to because there’s less fluid. Once you rehydrate and fluid levels are back to normal, the hematocrit too will settle at normal levels.9

3. Living At High Altitudes

High altitude locations have less oxygen in the environment than places that are in the plains. As a result, you take in less oxygen when you breathe in these locations. This can cause a shortage of oxygen in the blood known as hypoxia. And when that happens, your body amps up hemoglobin concentration to ensure you don’t fall short of this vital element and to keep up required levels of oxygen supply.10

4. Heart Problem

You may experience this increase in hemoglobin levels if you have a heart problem. Specifically, heart failure in the right side of the heart, also known as cor pulmonale, can result in excess or elevated levels of hemoglobin. The condition is caused by pulmonary hypertension or high blood pressure in the lung arteries, which puts added strain on your heart as it tries to pump blood to your lungs. Autoimmune disease, cystic fibrosis, obstructive sleep apnea, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and scarred lung tissue are other triggers for this heart problem that brings on higher hemoglobin levels.11

5. Lung Or Pulmonary Disease

Any impairment in the function of your lungs can produce excess red blood cells. If you are unable to inhale and absorb sufficient quantity of oxygen, the oxygen supply to your body will be inadequate. Your body will them make more red blood cells to compensate for the shortfall.12 Severe lung conditions such as scarred or thickened lung tissue (pulmonary fibrosis) can cause this problem.13

6. Congenital Heart Disease

Congenital heart disease that causes certain birth defects in the heart of the newborn is another culprit.14 Sometimes, when the two sides of the heart are not connected normally, oxygen levels in the blood drop. Your body then tried to compensate for this by creating more red blood cells, which causes hemoglobin level and hematocrit levels to be excessive.15

7. Exposure To High Carbon Monoxide Levels

If you are constantly exposed to high levels of carbon monoxide, you could end up developing secondary polycythemia. Homes that have furnaces or fireplaces need to be well-ventilated – failing to ensure a proper outlet for the burnt gases can put you at risk of developing excess hematocrit and high hemoglobin levels. A job in an underground parking garage too can increase your chances of developing the problem 16

8. Smoking

Smoking can cause higher hemoglobin levels than normal. Research has shown that smoking tobacco results in raised hemoglobin concentrations in men and women. In fact, the increase tends to be proportional to how much tobacco is smoked.17

9. Heavy Alcohol Consumption

Being a heavy drinker too can put you at risk of high hemoglobin levels. So what qualifies as high or heavy consumption? If you’re a woman who has more than 7 drinks a week or if you’re male and knock back over 14 drinks, you could have a problem. Men and women who drank excessively in one study had higher average hemoglobin levels than those who didn’t drink as much – it was 1.9 percent higher in women and 1.3 percent higher in men.18

What Causes Polycythemia In Babies?

Some other reasons why babies could develop this problem of high hemoglobin or excess red blood cells are listed below.19:

  • Being born at high altitudes or living at such altitudes causes babies to develop excess red blood cells as it does in adults who live in such locations.
  • Being born post-term after the mother crosses the 42-week mark in her pregnancy can also cause elevated red blood cell counts.
  • Having diabetic mothers can make babies susceptible.
  • Down syndrome or chromosomal abnormalities specifically in trisomies 13, 18, and 21 may result in polycythemia.
  • Experiencing intrauterine growth restriction or being small for gestational age can cause excess red blood cells to develop.
  • Being the recipient of a twin-to-twin blood transfusion from one’s identical twin may also result in polycythemia.

References   [ + ]

1.Red blood cell count. National Health Services.
2, 14.Hemoglobin. U.S. National Library of Medicine.
3, 13.Hematocrit. U.S. National Library of Medicine.
4, 9, 12, 15.Hematocrit The Test. American Association for Clinical Chemistry.
5, 19.Polycythemia. Stanford Children’s Health.
6, 7, 16.What Causes Polycythemia Vera? National Heart Lung And Blood Institute.
8.Polycythemia vera. U.S. National Library of Medicine.
10.HIGH-ALTITUDE-HYPOXIA: MANY SOLUTIONS TO ONE PROBLEM. Harvard University.
11.Cor pulmonale. U.S. National Library of Medicine.
17, 18.Milman, Nils, and Agnes N. Pedersen. “Blood haemoglobin concentrations are higher in smokers and heavy alcohol consumers than in non-smokers and abstainers—should we adjust the reference range?.” Annals of hematology 88, no. 7 (2009): 687.

Disclaimer: The content is purely informative and educational in nature and should not be construed as medical advice. Please use the content only in consultation with an appropriate certified medical or healthcare professional.

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