Hemochromatosis

Hemochromatosis is a condition in which the body is overloaded with iron. Iron is needed to make hemoglobin, the molecule that red blood cells use to carry oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. If you have hemochromatosis, your body absorbs and stores too much iron. Because your body does not have a way to get rid of the excess iron, it can damage your heart, liver, and pancreas.

Symptoms

You may have hemochromatosis for many years and not develop symptoms. In fact, some people never develop any symptoms. It's more common, though, for men to develop symptoms between age 30 and 50 and for women to develop symptoms at about age 50.

Symptoms may include:

  • Being very tired
  • Weakness
  • Joint pain
  • Stomach ache
  • Weight loss
  • Loss of interest in sex

If hemochromatosis is not found early and treated, many other symptoms can develop due to the damage caused by iron building up in the body.

Causes

There are two types of hemochromatosis. In the most common type, you inherit a gene from both of your parents that causes you to absorb too much iron from the food you eat. This type is called primary hemochromatosis. Hemochromatosis can also be caused by having a condition that causes iron overload. This type is called secondary hemochromatosis.

Diagnosis

Your doctor may suspect hemochromatosis from your history, your family history, and your physical exam. Some types of testing that may help in diagnosing hemochromatosis include:

  • Blood tests to see how much iron is being carried in your blood
  • A blood test to see how much iron is stored in your liver
  • A blood test or cheek swab to test for the abnormal gene that causes primary hemochromatosis
  • A liver biopsy (taking a small piece of the liver to examine under a microscope) to look for iron and damage
  • MRI (an image made with radio waves, magnets, and a computer) of the liver to look for iron and damage.

Risk Factors and Complications

You are at risk for primary hemochromatosis if you inherit the gene from both parents. Risk factors for secondary hemochromatosis include:

  • Anemia, a condition in which red blood cells break down and release iron
  • Diseases or infections of the liver
  • Alcoholism
  • Blood transfusions
  • Taking too many iron pills or iron injections
  • Kidney dialysis

Complications of hemochromatosis depend on what part of the body iron builds up in. Possible complications include:

  • Liver failure
  • Liver cancer
  • Heart problems
  • Diabetes
  • Joint damage
  • Sexual problems
  • Gray or bronze colored skin

Treatment

Treatment for secondary hemochromatosis depends on the cause. Primary hemochromatosis cannot be prevented or cured but damage from iron building up in the body may be avoided if hemochromatosis is diagnosed and treated early. There are two common treatments.

  • Therapeutic phlebotomy may be done to remove blood and iron from the body through a needle inserted in a vein. This treatment is similar to a blood donation and may be done from twice a week to once every few months.
  • A medication may be used that binds iron so that it can be removed by the kidneys. This treatment is called chelation therapy and it may be used in people who cannot tolerate frequent therapeutic phlebotomy. The medication may be injected at a doctor's office or taken by mouth at home.

What to Do

If you have symptoms of hemochromatosis, talk to your doctor. If you have a family history of primary hemochromatosis, ask your doctor if you should be tested. Here are some things to do if you have been diagnosed with hemochromatosis:

  • Avoid taking iron in pills, vitamins, or injections.
  • Ask your doctor how much vitamin C you should have. Vitamin C increases your absorption of iron.
  • Limit your alcohol use.
  • Drink plenty of fluids and avoid exercise for a few days after therapeutic phlebotomy.
  • Ask your doctor if your family members should be tested for hemochromatosis.

What We Have Learned

Hemochromatosis is a condition in which the body is overloaded with toxins.
True or False
The answer is False. The body is overloaded with iron.

Liver cancer is a possible complication of Hemochromatosis.
True or False
The answer is True

If you have been diagnosed with Hemochromatosis, you should avoid alcohol.
True or False
The answer is True