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What is Hemochromatosis

Updated on July 14, 2013
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What is hemochromatosis

When your body has too much iron, and it shows up on blood tests as an elevated level of ferritin, you may have hemochromatosis.

Iron is stored in the liver and heart, and too much iron will eventually damage these organs if it is not detected and treated early.

Hemochromatosis has two types.

  1. Hereditary hemochromatosis. This is the genetic form and it passed down from your parents.
  2. Acquired hemochromatosis. You may develop secondaryhemochromatosis through taking too many iron supplements, or through having too many blood transfusions. Certain blood disorders and chronic liver disease can also pre-dispose to hemochromatosis.
  3. Classic hemochromatosis. This type seems to have no underlying cause, but some people find that their body absorbs too much iron from the food they eat. If left untreated, the iron builds up in not only the liver and heart but in the pancreas, joints and pituitary gland. It can be fatal, as those organs become inefficient and diseased due to the iron.

More than 1 million Americans carry the gene responsible for hemochromatosis, and a further 15 million are already suffering from elevated levels of iron in their bodies, mostly undiagnosed and untreated.

White caucasians of Northern European descent are those most of risk of developing hemochromatosis. Many more men are affected than women.

Left untreated, too much iron in the body have been implicated in causing

  • diabetes mellitus
  • heart attack
  • arthritis (osteoarthritis, osteoporosis)
  • cirrhosis of the liver or liver cancer
  • gall bladder disease
  • depression
  • impotence
  • infertility
  • hypothyroidism
  • hypogonadism
  • Alzheimer's disease
  • Parkinson's disease
  • epilepsy
  • multiple sclerosis
  • Huntington's disease.

What is Hemochromatosis?

Signs and Symptoms of hemochromatosis

Fatigue and joint pain are the most common symptoms. As those two complaints are also shared with a million other conditions, usually many medical tests are completed looking for other things, before a diagnosis of hemochromatosis can be reached.

Symptoms are usually not noticed until the affected person reaches somewhere between the ages of 40 and 60, as the iron has built up over many years, unnoticed.

The common symptoms can be summarized as;

  • fatigue
  • joint pain
  • excess urination
  • weakness
  • weight loss
  • abdominal pain
  • memory fog
  • impotence or loss of sex drive
  • irregular heart beat
  • skin discoloration - can be grey or more commonly bronze.

While men can begin experiencing some or all of those symptoms by the late 20s/early30s, women don't tend to show any until about 15 years after they go through the menopause or have an hysterectomy.

One other common symptom present in most, but not all, hemochromatosis sufferers, is joint pain in their first and middle fingers.

Diagnosis of hemochromatosis

Hemochromatosis can be detected with a simple series of blood tests your doctor can arrange.

Hemochromatosis treatment

Caught early, hemochromatosis can be treated, allowing the sufferer to live a full life. In some types, it only needs treated once and it is gone, never to return.

Acquired hemochromatosis can be treated as a one off, but hereditary hemochromatosis is for life, I'm afraid, but can be controlled with continuous treatment.

This involves withdrawing blood from the body (a phlebotomy), much like when you donate blood to the transfusion service.

Each time blood is drawn off, expect your ferritin levels to drop by 30ng/mL. How often you need this done depends on how high your ferritin levels are.

Ideally you want them to be in the 100 - 300ng/mL range. Note: this is Ng not Mg.

You may also be prescribed medication (a chelating agent).

There are also certain foods you can take to help prevent iron absorption in the body.

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