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.