An absolute erythrocytosis is present when the red cell mass is raised and the haematocrit is elevated above prescribed limits. Causes of an absolute erythrocytosis can be primary where there is an intrinsic problem in the bone marrow and secondary where there an event outside the bone marrow driving erythropoiesis. This can further be divided into congenital and acquired causes. There remain an unexplained group idiopathic erythrocytosis. Investigation commencing with thorough history taking and examination and then investigation depending on initial features is required. Clear simple criteria for polycythaemia vera are now defined. Those who do not fulfil these criteria require further investigation depending on the clinical scenario and initial results. The erythropoietin level provides some guidance as to the direction in which to proceed and the order and extent of investigation necessary in an individual patient. It should thus be possible to make an accurate diagnosis in the majority of patients.