Ever been told your hemoglobin levels are too high after a blood test and wondered what it’s all about? While anemia or a dip in hemoglobin levels gets a lot of press, elevated hemoglobin levels often go unnoticed. But this condition can be equally damaging, which is why you should know what to look out for.
Understanding Hemoglobin And Its Function
Hemoglobin is a protein present in solution inside your red blood cells. If a red blood cell was a rubber water balloon, hemoglobin would be the water and the rubber would be the cell membrane. This protein is rich in iron and it’s what gives blood that red color. And it performs a really important function – that of carrying oxygen from your lungs to other parts of your body.
If your hemoglobin level is low, your blood is unable to carry sufficient oxygen to your body parts – a condition known as anemia. But high hemoglobin levels can be an issue as well. A high concentration of red blood cells can make you blood thicker, which can then slow down blood flow.
So what’s the ideal hemoglobin level? “Normal” hemoglobin levels can vary from person to person but, generally, an adult male should have hemoglobin levels of 13.8 to 17.2 g/dL, while a 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.
Causes For High Hemoglobin
Hemoglobin levels mostly rise when oxygen levels in your blood fall too low – a condition known as hypoxia – and the body tries to compensate for this. Conditions such as congenital heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and other lung disorders which affect oxygen levels can result in elevated hemoglobin levels. So can living at high altitudes with low oxygen levels, dehydration, and polycythemia vera, a disease of the bone marrow.
Testing Hemoglobin Levels
The level of hemoglobin in your blood is measured by the hemoglobin test which is typically carried out during a complete blood workup. A word of caution here, though – make sure that you don’t confuse the hemoglobin test with the hemoglobin A1c test which measures your blood sugar.
Most people find out about their high hemoglobin levels through the hemoglobin blood test. But there are some signs that could point to a high level. Watch out for the following.
Symptoms Of High Hemoglobin Levels
When you have a higher concentration of red blood cells, and consequently hemoglobin, in your blood, you have a condition called polycythemia. Mild polycythemia may not cause any symptoms. However, as mentioned earlier, high levels of red blood cells can thicken your blood, making it difficult for it to flow. This slowing down of your blood flow is mostly responsible for the symptoms experienced due to this condition.
Symptoms can include:
Your skin may appear red and flushed, especially of the hands, feet, and face.
2. Fatigue And Dizziness
You may feel tired or weak when your red blood cell count and hemoglobin level are high. Lightheadedness or dizziness is also common.
You may experience headaches when your hemoglobin levels are elevated.
4. Vision Problems
Issues with vision such as double vision, blurring of vision, or blind spots are another sign to watch out for.
5. Abdominal Discomfort
A feeling of discomfort in your abdomen is another symptom associated with polycythemia. If you experience a feeling of pressure or fullness on the left side of your abdomen, it could mean that your spleen has become enlarged, a possible complication.
6. Cognitive Problems
You may experience cognitive issues such as difficulty concentrating or confusion.
7. Bleeding Problems
You could have issues such as nosebleeds, bleeding from your gums, excessive bleeding from minor cuts, or easy bruising when you have polycythemia.
Symptoms Of Conditions Associated With High Hemoglobin Levels
Many underlying medical conditions can lead to increased hemoglobin levels. Take a look at the additional symptoms caused by these conditions, so you have a better understanding of what you might be dealing with. Do keep in mind, though, it’s important to consult your doctor to arrive at a diagnosis.
Polycythemia vera is a bone marrow disorder which results in the production of too many red blood cells. Your white blood cell count and platelet count may also be high if you have this condition. Complications associated with polycythemia vera include stomach ulcers, an enlarged spleen, gout, leukemia, and heart disease.
Symptoms: You may not experience any symptoms in the early stages. But as the condition progresses, some people may experience headaches, ringing in the ears, dizziness, shortness of breath, reddened skin, impaired vision, or itchy skin.
If your body doesn’t have sufficient fluids to function properly, you are dehydrated. The lack of sufficient fluids leads to a reduction of blood plasma (the fluid part of blood), resulting in a higher concentration of red blood cells and, therefore, higher hemoglobin.
Symptoms: Some early signs of dehydration include thirst, passing of strong-smelling and dark-colored urine, tiredness, a dry mouth, and lightheadedness.
A condition known as cor pulmonale where the right side of your heart fails can lead to a high level of red blood cells.
Symptoms: One of the first signs of this condition is lightheadedness or shortness of breath when you engage in activity. You might also get a rapid heartbeat. Over time, other symptoms like fainting when you’re active, chest pain or discomfort, swelling in the ankles or feet, bluish lips or fingers, and wheezing may also be experienced.
Lung Or Pulmonary Disease
Your lungs are responsible for the intake of oxygen from air and the delivery of oxygen to your bloodstream. Disorders that affect the functioning of your lungs like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or thickening or scarring of the lungs – a condition known as pulmonary fibrosis – can lead to elevated levels of hemoglobin.
Symptoms: The signs of lung disease can vary depending on the kind of lung disease. However, a lack of energy is often a common early sign. Other signs include shortness of breath and difficulty breathing, a persistent cough, the coughing up of mucus or blood, discomfort or pain while breathing, and a reduced ability to exercise.
Problems With Your Kidney
Conditions like renal artery stenosis, a condition where the blood vessels supplying blood to your kidneys become narrow, and kidney cancer can lead to elevated levels of erythropoietin. This hormone, produced by your kidneys, stimulates the production of red blood cells. Therefore, you can experience high levels of red blood cells when you have these conditions.
Symptoms: Renal artery stenosis typically doesn’t cause any symptoms till the condition becomes severe enough to significantly impact the functioning of your kidneys. At this point, you may experience symptoms like an increase or decrease in urination, swelling in your feet, legs, or ankles, tiredness, itchy or dry skin, darkening of your skin, and loss of appetite.
Kidney cancer may not produce any symptoms in many cases. When symptoms do occur, you may notice blood in your urine, pain in your side or lower back, or a swelling in your side.
Congenital Heart Disease
Congenital heart disease is a defect in the structure and function of the heart that’s present from birth.
Symptoms: Generally, congenital heart problems can be identified with the ultrasound during pregnancy. The symptoms of congenital heart defects in adults can include abnormal heartbeats, shortness of breath especially when exercising, tiredness, a heart murmur, swelling in your extremities, and a blue tinge in the nails, lips, or skin.
Exposure To High Carbon Monoxide Levels
Exposure to high levels of carbon monoxide can lead to a lack of oxygen and, therefore, elevated hemoglobin levels. You can get exposed to this toxic gas by breathing in fumes from fuel burnt in cars, stoves, grills, or furnaces.
Symptoms: Common signs that indicate carbon monoxide poisoning include headaches, weakness, dizziness, upset stomach, chest pain, vomiting, and confusion.
The poor blood flow seen in polycythemia can also lead to blood clots in your blood vessels.
Symptoms: A clot in one of the veins in your body, generally in a leg, means you have a condition known as deep vein thrombosis. Signs include swelling, warmth, redness, and a cramping pain in the affected area. Breathlessness, fainting, chest pain, and the coughing up of blood can be indicative of a clot in a blood vessel that carries blood to your lungs from your heart – a condition known as pulmonary embolism.
A blood clot can be dangerous as it can put you at risk for conditions like strokes and heart attacks. Do seek immediate medical attention if you experience symptoms of a blood clot or observe signs indicative of a stroke or heart attack.