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
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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, or from taking too many iron pills.
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:
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.