Polycythemia due to COPD and Smoking

Author: V. Dimov, M.D., University of Chicago
Reviewer: S. Randhawa, M.D., Fort Lauderdale, FL

A 54-year-old female is admitted to the hospital with chief complain of SOB for 2 days. She also complains of cough with wheezing, and denies chest pain, fever or chills.

Past medical history (PMH)

COPD/asthma, HTN, hypothyroidism.


Aspirin, Lasix, Maxzide, albuterol, Synthroid.



Social history (SH)

Smoker, denies alcohol or illicit drug use.

Physical examination

VS 36.3-22-60-118/86.
Chest: decreased air movement (B) with wheezing.
CVS: Clear S1S2.
Abdomen: Soft, NT.

Laboratory results

ABG on 4 L/min: pH 7.39, pCO2 53, pO2 68, SpO2 89%

CXR: Scoliosis, cardiomegaly, atelectasis, and pleural scarring

What happened?

The patient was given breathing treatments with albuterol and Atrovent, terbutaline 0.3 mg SQ x 2, Solu-Medrol 60 mg IV and magnesium 2 g in 100 ml of saline over one hour.

After this treatment, the patient was saturating at 78% to 80% on RA. She was admitted for treatment of COPD exacerbation.

CBC showed polycythemia: Hgb 20 mg/dL, Hct 60

CBC in polycythemia (click to enlarge the image).

What tests would you suggest for work-up of polycythemia?

Check SpO2, ABG, epoetin level, B12 and alkaline phosphatase.

SpO2 and ABG in secondary polycythemia (click to enlarge the images).

CMP, B12; epoetin level is very high (click to enlarge the images).

Final diagnosis

Polycythemia secondary to hypoxemia due to COPD.

What happened next?

The patient reported improvement in SOB with COPD therapy. Hematocrit decreased with hydration, and she was discharged home with home O2 and follow-up with her PCP in 2 weeks.

COPD treatment, note the nicotine patch (click to enlarge the image).

What did we learn from this case?

Polycythemia can be one of two types: primary (a true bone marrow disorder) and secondary.

Secondary polycythemia is much more common and is due to heavy smoking (elevated carboxyhemoglobin), COPD or dehydration. Our patient's condition is due to smoking and low SpO2 due to COPD.

Polycythemia vera is diagnosed by using the Polycythemia Vera Study Group major criteria: elevated red blood cell mass (not a practical test, rarely done), SpO2 > 92%, and palpable splenomegaly (3 major criteria).

Polycythemia rubra vera (PRV) is an autonomous RBC proliferation (not dependent on erythropoetin), and epoetin level is low or normal. Low epoetin level has 70% sensitivity and 90% specificity for polycythemia vera.

Other lab findings in PRV (minor criteria):

Platelets > 400
WBC> 12
High leukocyte alk phos (LAP)> 100, DDx with CMP in which LAP is low
High B12> 900

PRV is a part of the myeloproliferative disorders, remembered by the mnemonic MEPC:

Essential Thrombocythemia


Polycythemia Vera - AFP.
Polycythemia Vera (Primary Polycythemia; Vaquez' Disease) - Merck Manual.
Polycythemia Vera - eMedicine.

Related reading

Polycythema vera. Pulmonary Roundtable, March 13, 2006.
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). AllergyCases.org.
Desperate to Cry, Desperate Not To. NYTimes.

Published: 05/11/2005
Updated: 04/14/2010


  1. CMP = Comprehensive Metabolic Panel, a group of 14 blood tests

  2. 1. I see no reason for magnesium treatment.
    2. Is there any evidence for phlebotomy?

  3. VS 36.3-22-60-118/86

    what is 36.3?

  4. Re: VS 36.3-22-60-118/86
    what is 36.3?

    36.3 is the temperature in degrees Celsius

    The order is:

    Temp-Resp rate-Heart rate-Blood Pressure

    T-RR-HR-BP-SpO2 is often added

  5. Did you order the COHB separate from the ABG?