Thick blood: everything you need to know

Blood is a body fluid composed of cells, proteins and substances that aid clotting. As with other things, our body relies on a balance to maintain a normal blood consistency. And if there develops an imbalance in the cells and proteins responsible for blood clotting, the blood can become too thick.

This condition, known as hypercoagulation, can be caused by excess red blood cells or excess clotting proteins in the blood, as well as by diseases that affect clotting.

When the blood is too thick, there form clots that obstruct the movement of oxygen, nutrients and hormones in the body, preventing them from reaching cells and tissues. This can lead to oxygen, hormonal and nutritional deficiencies, resulting in serious consequences. Blood clots can also travel to the arteries and veins in all the body organs, which in turn may lead to these organs damage. Therefore early detection and treatment are important.

Causes of thick blood can be developed and inherited:

Developed – when thick blood has been triggered by something else, such as certain medicine, unhealthy lifestyle or a disease. For example, hormonal drugs, obesity, smoking, sedentary lifestyle, pregnancy, cancer, car or plane trips.

Inherited – when thick blood is due to genetic defects that occur either in the proteins needed for blood clotting or in the substances that delay or dissolve clots.

Although, the developed and inherited causes are not related, a person can sometimes have both.

Thick blood is often symptomless and first shows when a clot develops in a person’s vein, causing pain and affecting circulation in and around the area of clot formation.

Sometimes, besides blood clots, a person with too many red blood cells may develop the following symptoms:

  • Dizziness
  • Blurred vision
  • Headaches
  • Easy bruising
  • High blood pressure
  • Shortness of breath
  • Itchy skin
  • Heavy menstrual bleeding or menstrual clots.

A person with too many white blood cells can develop:

  • Anemia
  • Tiredness
  • Frequent or recurrent infections
  • Weight loss
  • Bone pain.

It is necessary to be tested for thick blood if a person experiences recurrent blood clots, clots of unknown origin and recurrent pregnancy loss, especially when there is a family history.

In order to treat the conditions that affect coagulation, antiplatelet therapy and anticoagulation therapies may be prescribed.

Antiplatelet therapy presupposes taking medications, such as Aspirin, that prevent platelets from sticking together and forming a clot.

Anticoagulation therapy presupposes taking medications, such as Warfarin, that inhibit clotting at the level of coagulation factors.

However, medications are prescribed to be taken regularly only when there is an actual risk for a clot or when it has already been formed. In other cases, people with thick blood are advised to make some lifestyle changes to reduce the likelihood of clots and complications. These include:

  • Quitting smoking
  • Engaging in physical activity
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Staying hydrated
  • Not sitting for long periods and stretching, walking or moving feet to keep blood flowing.

If not prevented or timely detected and treated, blood clots can result in serious complications, such as:

  • Deep vein thrombosis – a clot formed in a deep vein in the leg or arm results in pain, swelling and circulation problems around the affected area. If such clot breaks off, it can travel to lungs and cause pulmonary embolism.
  • Pulmonary embolism – when a clot in deep vein breaks away and travels back to the heart or lungs, resulting in insufficient blood flow and interfering with gas exchange in the lungs. It may cause chest pain, shortness of breath, rapid breathing, painful breathing, increased heart rate and coughing up blood.
  • Stroke – when the blood flow to the brain is blocked either by a blood clot formed on an atherosclerosis plaque within a blood vessel in the brain or by a wandering clot that lodges in an artery leading to the brain. It can cause paralysis, disability, brain damage and even death.
  • Heart attack – when a blood clot forms in the coronary artery. It may cause arrhythmias, heart failure or death.
  • Kidney failure – when clot blocks one or both of the renal veins. It can cause kidneys unable to remove waste and fluids form the body.
  • Pregnancy-related complications – when blood clots as a safeguard against losing too much blood during labor. However, this can cause preeclampsia, stillbirth or miscarriage.

However, with proper treatment and ongoing care thick blood is not going to affect life expectancy.