Hemochromatosis happens when too much iron
builds up in the body. Your body needs iron to make hemoglobin, the part of
your blood that carries oxygen to all of your cells. But when there is too much
iron, it can damage the liver and heart and lead to other diseases, such as
Hemochromatosis can be treated to prevent serious problems. But without treatment, hemochromatosis will continue storing
iron in the body. When iron levels are dangerously high, organ and tissue
damage can happen.
The most common type of
hemochromatosis runs in families. But people sometimes get it from having a lot
blood transfusions, certain blood problems, liver
disease, or alcoholism.
are more likely than women to have too much iron built up. Women get rid
of extra iron through blood from their menstrual cycles and during
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms often don't appear until a person is age 40 or older. This is
because extra iron builds up slowly throughout the person's life. And symptoms appear after a certain amount of extra iron builds up.
The early symptoms are somewhat vague or subtle. So this disease is
sometimes mistaken for another condition. Early symptoms include:
Pain in the joints.
Urinating more often.
How is hemochromatosis diagnosed?
Your doctor will do a physical exam and ask
about your medical history. If the doctor suspects hemochromatosis, you will
have blood tests to see if you have too much iron in your body.
Most of the time hemochromatosis is caused by a gene that runs in
families. It is an
autosomal recessive disorder that can be passed to a
child from the parents. Hemochromatosis can be found early with a blood test. If you have this disease,
you may want to have your children tested to see if they have it. Other family
members may also want to be tested. Talking to a
genetic counselor will help you decide whether genetic
testing is a good idea for you and your family.
Most medical experts do not think it is helpful to screen
for hemochromatosis in the general population using blood tests or genetic
tests because hemochromatosis is not common. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) does
not recommend genetic screening for hemochromatosis in the general
population.1 The general population includes people
who do not have symptoms of hemochromatosis and who do not have a parent,
brother, sister, or child with the disease.
How is it treated?
Phlebotomy. This is the most common treatment. It is like donating blood and is done on a regular schedule.
Chelation therapy (also called chelating agents). This is medicine that
help your body get rid of excess iron. It might be used in some people who can't have phlebotomy.
Safely and quickly remove excess iron from the
Limit the progression and possible complications of the
Prevent organ damage, such as in the liver or heart.
Most people need treatment for the rest of their lives. But some people may not need further treatment if their iron levels return to normal and the hemochromatosis is clearly caused by another disease or by a treatment for another disease (such as blood transfusions).
Can hemochromatosis be prevented?
Having hemochromatosis in your family doesn't
mean that you will automatically get it. If you find out that you have
inherited a gene that causes hemochromatosis, that means you are more likely to get hemochromatosis. Your doctor or a genetic counselor can help you understand the results of a gene test. You might watch for symptoms so that if you do get hemochromatosis, you can get treatment as early as possible. Early treatment
can reverse most symptoms and prevent future problems.
How can I take care of myself at home?
At home, you can take steps to make sure you are not getting too much iron in food or drinks.
Limit or do not drink alcohol. If you drink alcohol, you absorb more iron from food and raise your risk of liver damage (cirrhosis).
Do not take extra vitamin C supplements (more than
200 mg a day). Extra vitamin C can increase the
amount of iron you absorb from food. But it's okay to eat and drink foods that naturally
contain vitamin C.
Do not take nutritional
supplements or vitamins that contain iron.
If you get phlebotomy treatment, ask your doctor if you should change the foods you eat. If you need to lower the amount of iron in your diet, you can eat
less red meat and iron-fortified food, such as cereals.
Drink tea and coffee. These drinks—tea more than coffee—can cause
your body to absorb less iron from the food you eat. Drinking these beverages
does not replace usual treatment.
Do not use iron cookware. Food
cooked in ironware can absorb some of the iron.
Do not eat uncooked
seafood. It can contain a bacteria that's harmful to people who have hemochromatosis.
The Iron Disorders Institute is a national voluntary
health agency that provides information about iron disorders such as
hemochromatosis, acquired iron overload, sickle cell anemia, thalassemia, iron
deficiency anemia, and anemia of chronic disease. The organization works with a
scientific review board as well as various medical professional groups. A free
newsletter, idInsight, is available.
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
P.O. Box 30105
Bethesda, MD 20824-0105
The U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
(NHLBI) information center offers information and publications about preventing
Diseases affecting the heart and circulation, such as heart
attacks, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, peripheral artery disease, and
heart problems present at birth (congenital heart diseases).
Diseases that affect the lungs, such as asthma, chronic
obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), emphysema, sleep apnea, and
Diseases that affect the blood, such as anemia,
hemochromatosis, hemophilia, thalassemia, and von Willebrand disease.
U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (2006). Screening for hemochromatosis. Available online: http://www.ahrq.gov/clinic/uspstf06/hemochromatosis/hemochrs.htm.
How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.