A high RBC count may occur because:

  • Red blood cell production increases to compensate for low oxygen levels due to poor heart or lung function
  • Red blood cell production increases to compensate for lower oxygen levels at higher altitudes
  • The kidneys release too much of a protein (erythropoietin, or EPO) that enhances red blood cell production
  • The bone marrow is producing too many red blood cells
  • The oxygen-carrying capacity of red blood cells is reduced
  • The loss of blood plasma (the liquid component of blood), often due to sodium and water depletion, results in the appearance of higher levels of red blood cells

Specific causes of high red blood cell count may include:

  1. Anabolic steroids, which stimulate red blood cell production
  2. Carbon monoxide poisoning
  3. Congenital heart disease in adults
  4. COPD — Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  5. Dehydration
  6. EPO doping (injections of erythropoietin (EPO) to enhance athletic performance)
  7. Heart failure
  8. Hemoglobinopathies (conditions present at birth that impair the oxygen-carrying capacity of red blood cells)
  9. Kidney cancer
  10. Kidney transplant
  11. Living at a high altitude, where there's less oxygen in the air
  12. Other types of heart disease
  13. Other types of lung disease
  14. Polycythemia vera
  15. Pulmonary fibrosis
  16. Sleep apnea
  17. Smoking, which may result in low blood oxygen levels

Causes shown here are commonly associated with this symptom. Work with your doctor or other health care professional for an accurate diagnosis.

Jan. 25, 2013