Paroxysmal cold hemoglobinuria (PCH) is a rare type of anemia characterized by the premature destruction of healthy red blood cells by autoantibodies. The disorder is classified as an autoimmune hemolytic anemia (AIHA), an uncommon group of disorders in which the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy red blood cells. Autoimmune diseases occur when the body’s natural defenses against foreign organisms destroy healthy tissue for unknown reasons. Normally, red blood cells have a life span of approximately 120 days before they get removed by the spleen. In individuals with PCH, red blood cells are destroyed prematurely and sometimes suddenly (paroxysmally). Many reports emphasize that PCH is an unusual disease. However, in recent years, PCH has become recognized as one of the most common causes of acute AIHA in young children. The reason why acute transient PCH appears to be a more common type of childhood AIHA than it was thought to be several decades ago is uncertain, but probably relates to greater awareness of the disorder and more frequent use of the Donath-Landsteiner test (see Diagnosis section ), especially in children with acute AIHA with hemoglobinuria.
PCH was first described as a distinct disorder in the medical literature in 1872. The specific antibody associated with the disorder (Donath-Landsteiner autoantibody) was first described by Drs. Donath and Landsteiner in 1904.
A majority of cases of PCH recorded in the early medical literature were associated with late syphilis or congenital syphilis. In the early 1900s over 90 percent of patients with chronic PCH had a positive test for syphilis and approximately 30 percent showed clinical evidence of the disease. With the effective treatment of syphilis and the virtual elimination of the congenital form, "classical" syphilitic PCH is now an extremely rare disorder, as is chronic PCH. It was in patients with the chronic form of PCH that exposure to cold resulted in a paroxysm of hemoglobinuria.
In modern times, PCH is almost always encountered as an acute transient syndrome in young children with a recent history of a viral illness, so that paroxysms resulting from cold exposure are rarely encountered. Thus, although this type of AIHA is known as PCH, the words paroxysmal and cold are generally not relevant to the disorder as it is manifest in the modern era. As children with PCH do not usually have hemolysis directly related to exposure to the cold (e.g., they continue hemolysis when in a warm hospital environment), it has been suggested that a better term might be Donath-Landsteiner test positive hemolytic anemia.
The typical presentation is that of a child who during the preceding 1-2 weeks had suffered from what appeared to be an undefined or “flu-like” illness. Usually the onset of hemolysis is signaled by a recurrence of fever and then the passage of red-brown urine. This urine contains the iron bearing, oxygen transporting, protein pigment of blood called hemoglobin, which is released when red blood cells are prematurely destroyed. The presence of hemoglobin in the urine (hemoglobinuria) causes the dark brown color of the urine. Hemoglobinuria, hemoglobinemia (hemoglobin in the plasma), jaundice and pallor are common clinical findings in acute PCH and, of particular significance is that hemoglobinuria is found in almost all acute cases in childhood.
Abdominal pain and fever are also common findings. Approximately 25 percent of cases have palpable liver and spleen. Although hemoglobinuria may be induced by exposure to cold, such an occurrence is rare in acute PCH. In acute PCH, hemolysis typically lasts for a few days only and recovery is usually uninterrupted.
The older medical literature describes chronic syphilitic PCH as a rather benign disease that rarely caused severe chronic anemia. However, acute attacks of hemolysis and hemoglobinuria were well known and were characterized by the sudden onset of shaking chills, fever, malaise, abdominal distress, aching pains in the back or legs, arid nausea. Usually, hemoglobin was present in the first specimen of urine passed after the onset of symptoms, and the interval between chilling and the development of symptoms ranged from a few minutes to eight hours. The extent of cold exposure could be surprisingly slight and, in some cases, a history of undue exposure to cold was not elicited.
Individuals with PCH often develop the classic symptoms of anemia- the medical term for low levels of circulating red blood cells. These symptoms may include fatigue, difficulty breathing upon exertion (dyspnea) and abnormal or extreme paleness of the skin (pallor). In addition, affected individuals may develop chills, fever, abdominal pain, and pain or aching in the legs or lower back. Less common findings associated with PCH include headaches, vomiting and diarrhea.
Following an episode, affected individuals usually develop the signs of hemolysis including yellowing of the skin, whites of the eyes and mucous membranes (jaundice). In some cases additional symptoms may occur including tingling in the hands and feet, a condition marked by a feeling of coldness or numbness of the hands, nose and ears in response to cold temperatures (Raynaud’s phenomenon), or a skin condition marked by reddening and itching of the skin in response to cold temperatures (cold urticaria). In extremely rare cases, the kidney may become involved and kidney (renal) failure has been reported in a few cases.
In most affected children, PCH occurs as an acute hemolytic anemia, following an infection and spontaneously resolves once the infection subsides. Usually, PCH does not recur (self-limited) in children, but recurrent cases have been reported in the medical literature. In most adults the cause of PCH is unknown (idiopathic) and is usually a chronic disease. With the dramatic decline in the prevalence of syphilis, PCH in adults has declined, and the current understanding of the adult form of the disease is less clear.
PCH is an autoimmune disorder, a disorder in which the body’s natural defenses against invading organisms destroy healthy tissue for unknown reasons. In PCH, antibodies mistakenly attack red blood cells causing the cells to breakdown prematurely, a condition called (hemolysis). When antibodies attack healthy tissue, they are referred to as autoantibodies.
Antibodies (which are also known as immunoglobulins) are specialized proteins that bind to invading organisms and bring about their destruction. There are five main classes of antibodies – IgA, IgD, IgE, IgG, and IgM. In PCH, a specific autoantibody known as the Donath-Landsteiner autoantibody is produced often in response to a viral infection. This autoantibody binds to red blood cells during exposure to cold temperatures. The Donath-Landsteiner autoantibody is a type of IgG antibody; its target is the P blood group antigen, present on the red cells of almost all individuals.
Autoimmune hemolytic anemias as a group are estimated to affect 1-3 people per 100,000 in the general population. Both the syphilitic and non-syphilitic forms of chronic PCH are exceedingly rare. The prevalence and incidence rates are unknown. Anyone may acquire PCH, but it is more common among children than among adults. An individual with a viral infection is at higher risk of contracting the disorder. No known genetic, sex, or racial risk factors exist, although the disease has been reported in families.
A diagnosis of PCH may be suspected in some individuals with anemia. In particular, the diagnosis should be suspected in any acutely ill child with hemoglobinuria. A diagnosis is made based upon a thorough clinical evaluation, a detailed patient history, identification of characteristic symptoms and a variety of specialized tests such as a direct antiglobulin test (Coombs) test, which is used to detect certain antibodies that act against red blood cells. A diagnosis of PCH is confirmed by the results of a Donath-Landsteiner test, which can distinguish PCH from other forms of hemolytic anemia. The test consists of incubating a sample of the patient’s serum with normal red blood cells (RBCs) in the cold for 30 minutes and then warming the mixture to body temperature (37C). Hemolysis of the RBCs in this “bi-phasic” test indicates a diagnosis of PCH.
Most cases of PCH resolve without treatment (spontaneously) and only require supportive therapy for a few days to weeks after onset. Strict avoidance of cold temperatures is recommended to protect against the premature breakdown of red blood cells and loss of hemoglobin (hemolysis).
In some cases, severe anemia may require a red blood cell transfusion. In such cases, a transfusion should not be delayed. Use of a blood warmer during transfusion is sometimes recommended.
Due to the temporary (transient) nature of the disease in children in most cases, affected children are often in the recovery phase of the illness at the time symptoms become apparent. Most cases that involve children and are linked to a viral infection require only supportive therapy, bed rest, and protection of the affected individual from cold temperatures.
In some cases of chronic PCH additional therapies may be tried to help manage the disease. Steroids have been used but often with ineffective results. Researchers are studying other drugs that suppress the immune system (immunosuppressive agents) such as Rituximab for the treatment of chronic PCH that does not respond to other therapies (refractory PCH). More research is necessary to determine the long-term safety and effectiveness of immunosuppressive drugs for the treatment of individuals with refractory PCH.
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Contact for additional information about paroxysmal cold hemoglobinuria:
George Garratty, PhD, FRCPath
American Red Cross Blood Services
Southern California Region
100 Red Cross Circle
Pomona, CA 91768
Clinical Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine
University of California, Los Angeles
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