Polycythemia vera (PV) is a rare blood cancer that develops slowly over many years. The condition can cause a variety of symptoms, including an itchy or burning sensation all over the body.

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The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) define PV as a rare blood disease that causes the bone marrow to create too many red blood cells. The increase in red blood cells can make the blood very thick, which can slow down blood flow and increase the likelihood of blockages.

If the blood flow slows down enough, this can prevent organs from getting enough oxygen and lead to several serious health complications.

Read on to learn more about the symptoms of PV, with a focus on how the condition may affect a person’s skin.

According to the LLS, PV can cause a variety of symptoms after the disease has progressed for several years. Early on, a person may not notice any symptoms, but when symptoms and signs do appear, they often include:

  • skin that appears red or discolored
  • pruritus, or itchy skin, which is worse after warm showers or baths
  • blurry vision or other changes relating to eyesight
  • headaches
  • excessive sweating
  • fatigue
  • dizziness
  • ringing in the ears
  • unexplained weight loss
  • shortness of breath
  • weakness
  • tingling, burning, or numbness in the feet
  • easy or excessive bruising or bleeding
  • inflamed, painful joints
  • an enlarged spleen, which causes a bloated feeling in the left upper part of the abdomen

The NHLBI state that PV is a chronic condition that can be fatal if a person does not receive a diagnosis and treatment. Although treatments will not cure PV, they may help prevent symptoms of the disease, as well as some of the associated complications.

Treating PV can also help reduce some of the common symptoms, such as itchy skin.

PV can cause skin issues that can become visible and even debilitating if a person does not receive treatment. According to the NHLBI and the LLS, PV can have the following effects on the skin:

  • excessive itchiness over large parts of the body that often worsens on taking a warm shower or bath
  • flushing of the skin, particularly of the face
  • a burning sensation, particularly on the hands and feet

The National Organization for Rare Disorders describe the symptoms of PV, including itchy skin, as nonspecific. This term means that itchy skin — whether it occurs by itself or alongside other symptoms — does not necessarily indicate that a person is living with PV.

A person should speak with their doctor if they develop itchy skin, particularly if it gets worse after a bath or shower.

PV can cause the skin to look discolored and blotchy. Although this symptom often affects the face, it can occur nearly anywhere on the body.

The blotches can be small and roundish, or they may cover larger areas of skin.

The affected areas may appear dry. They are also typically itchy and will get more so following a hot shower or bath.

When PV affects the skin, a person may find that home remedies and over-the-counter (OTC) solutions provide relief. According to CancerCare, some steps that a person can take to manage their skin include:

  • lowering the temperature of baths and showers, especially in colder weather
  • avoiding scratching at the skin
  • taking an OTC antihistamine, such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl), to minimize itching

According to a 2017 review, there are few studies on the most effective ways to deal with pruritus. However, the authors note that research findings indicate that moisturizing the skin regularly can be a helpful first-line treatment. After that, a person could try various methods to help improve their symptoms. These include:

  • getting behavioral therapy to help prevent scratching
  • wearing loose clothing
  • avoiding bathing too frequently
  • refraining from using harsh soaps on the skin
  • applying topical steroids and calcineurin inhibitors to the affected areas
  • using topical menthol or anesthetics
  • taking prescription medications, which may include a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, such as paroxetine (Paxil) or sertraline (Zoloft)

The above treatments are not specific to PV and may not be effective or even suitable for all people. A person can talk with a doctor about the best treatment options for their situation.

It is important that people living with PV take steps to manage the condition. Doing so may help reduce symptoms of the disease.

The NHLBI state that the primary goal of treatment is to reduce the risk of serious complications, such as blood clots, heart failure, or myelofibrosis. However, they note that a reduction in blood cells can reduce or eliminate other signs and symptoms of PV.

According to the NHLBI, the primary treatments for PV include:

  • low dose aspirin to help prevent clots
  • phlebotomy, which involves draining some blood to decrease its volume and thickness in the body
  • medications to help reduce the production of blood cells
  • radiation to help prevent bone marrow from producing as many blood cells

Itchy, flushed skin is a common symptom of PV. However, it is also a common symptom of several other conditions, so additional testing is necessary to diagnose PV.

People can take steps at home to reduce itching. These include lowering the temperature of baths or showers and applying moisturizer or topical creams.

A person should also follow all treatment recommendations from their healthcare team. Doing this will help prevent deadly complications, as well as reducing the severity of itchy skin and other symptoms.