Too Much Iron in Your Body Is Harmful
Symptoms of Hemochromatosis and Treatment
Hemochromatosis is a genetic disease in which the intestine absorbs too much iron from the diet, says Kyle Brown, M.D., M.Sc., UI Hospitals and Clinics gastroenterologist. "The most common type of hemochromatosis is a disease of people of Northern European descent, although there are some rare forms of iron overload which are similar to the classical type of hemochromatosis that can occur in people of any ethnic group."
Symptoms are usually asymptomatic in the early phases of the disease. "When symptoms are present, they are often non-specific problems, such as fatigue, joint aches, and impotence," says Brown. "When iron overload is more advanced, there can be signs that indicate liver damage, heart failure or diabetes.
"The first abnormalities that are found are increases in the person's serum iron tests. But these can be abnormal in many circumstances other than hemochromatosis, so genetic testing is required to confirm that the individual actually has hemochromatosis. In some cases, a liver biopsy is needed to confirm iron overload or to assess for liver damage"
Treatment is very simple, says Brown. "The excess iron is removed by phlebotomy, which is basically like donating blood, only it is done on a more frequent basis until the excess iron is removed. If left untreated, excess iron accumulates in vital organs, particularly the liver, pancreas and heart. All of these organs can become irreversibly damaged, and cirrhosis, diabetes and heart failure can result."
If a family member has been diagnosed with hemochromatosis, other family members should also be tested, Brown says. The first test should draw blood to check iron levels. If these are abnormal, genetic testing plus or minus a liver biopsy might be needed.
There is no cure, but the phlebotomy treatment is very easy and effective in preventing organ damage.