Hemochromatosis is a disease that causes
iron deposits to build up throughout the
body. The buildup of iron can severely
damage or destroy organs. If the disease is
detected early, it can be treated and the
Hemochromatosis is also called iron overload
How does it occur?
Hemochromatosis is caused by an inherited
tendency to store too much iron.
buildup of iron in the body especially
affects the liver, heart, pancreas, and
become scarred and fibrous. The healthy
liver helps you digest food and process
medicines, toxins, and other waste
products. Damage to the liver makes it
hard for your liver function normally.
Scarring of the liver is called
muscle can become damaged, leading to
heart problems, including heart failure.
pancreas, which produces insulin,
becomes damaged. The pancreas may make
less insulin than your body needs. When
you have too little insulin, the level
of sugar in your blood rises and you may
levels of thyroid hormone and sex
hormone can cause fatigue, infertility,
About 3 of
every 1,000 people in the US have
hemochromatosis, especially those of
English, French, Swedish, or Portuguese
descent. Men are much more likely to have
symptoms than women. Before menopause women
are protected somewhat from the disease
because they lose quite a bit of iron during
menstruation and childbirth.
do not have the disease but are carriers.
Being a carrier means that you can pass the
gene for the disease on to your children.
What are the
You may not
have any symptoms for years. Symptoms
usually appear in middle age. They include:
most common symptom)
(especially in the fingers, hips, and
a change in
your skin color to gray or brown
rapid heart rate
no menstrual periods, and trouble
diabetes, such as frequent urination and
symptoms of heart failure such as
shortness of breath and decreased
cirrhosis of the liver, including
nausea, loss of appetite, swelling of
the abdomen, abdominal pain, and
vomiting of blood.
How is it
Hemochromatosis can be diagnosed from blood
tests. These tests can detect the problem
before symptoms appear.
who have no symptoms and no known family
history of hemochromatosis, the disease is
usually discovered through blood tests done
for some other reason. When these blood
tests show signs of excess iron or liver
damage, specific blood tests can be done to
look for iron overload as well as genetic
causes of the disease.
tests for hemochromatosis are positive, you
may have a liver biopsy. When you have a
liver biopsy your health care provider numbs
the skin over the area of the liver (by the
lower right rib cage). He or she then
inserts a hollow needle and removes some
liver tissue. The tissue is examined for
abnormal stores of iron and signs of liver
How is it treated?
is very simple: excess iron is removed from
your body by removing blood. When your level
of iron is high, you may need to have a pint
of blood removed each week until your iron
level is normal. Your iron levels can be
checked with blood tests. These tests will
determine if, when, and how much blood needs
to be taken. When blood removal has lowered
your iron levels to normal, you will
probably need to repeat the treatment every
3 to 4 months to maintain normal levels.
If your liver
or other organs are damaged, problems
resulting from the damage will also be
treated. If you have diabetes or thyroid
problems, you will likely need to continue
your medication for these problems.
Impotence, will also require continued
treatment. Heart disease can be treated with
heart medications. Joint pain can be treated
scarring has begun, it may progress to
serious liver disease and liver failure. A
liver transplant may be an option in this
part of treatment is to avoid alcohol and
medications that can worsen liver damage.
How long do the
start having symptoms, they usually continue
even though you are having treatments to
remove excess iron. This means you will need
to continue treatment for heart, thyroid,
liver, impotence, and joint problems.
If you do not
have any symptoms of hemochromatosis, you
will have regular checks of your iron levels
so blood can be removed when your levels get
too high. This will prevent symptoms and
How can I help
If you have a
family history of hemochromatosis, you
should have genetic testing or blood tests
to see if you have the disease or may be a
carrier. Early and continued treatment,
including regular blood tests, can prevent
your iron levels from becoming too high.
This will prevent organ damage and allow you
to have a normal life.
iMcKesson Clinical Reference Products.
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Copyright © 1995-2000 iMcKesson LLC. All
Adapted from content provided
by iMcKesson, LLC
Review Date: 6/9/2001