What is Hemochromatosis?

Hemochromatosis, also known as hereditary hemochromatosis, causes the body to absorb too much iron from foods you eat. The excess iron then gets stored in your organs, especially the liver, heart, and pancreas, which over time can damage them and lead to life-threatening illnesses such as cancer, heart problems, and liver disease.

Causes of Hemochromatosis

Hereditary hemochromatosis is caused by a defect in a gene called HFE, which helps regulate the amount of iron your body absorbs from the foods you eat. If both your parents have the HFE defect, you may develop hemochromatosis.

While the disease initially affects men at an earlier age than women, once women reach menopause and are no longer losing iron through menstruation, the risk for women increases. If you are concerned that you may have inherited this condition, talk to your doctor about genetic testing to determine whether you have these gene mutations.

Symptoms of Hemochromatosis

Because hemochromatosis is rare and the early signs and symptoms of the disease closely resemble other common conditions such as arthritis, it may be difficult to get an accurate diagnosis.

Although the disease is present at birth, you may not experience symptoms until much later in life-usually between the ages of 30 and 50 in men and after age 50 in women. Symptoms include:

  • Joint pain
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of sex drive or impotence
  • Lack of normal menstruation
  • Pain on the upper right portion of the stomach

If you experience any of these symptoms, talk to your doctor. If you have an immediate family member who has hemochromatosis, ask your doctor about genetic testing.

Treatments for Hemochromatosis

Although there is no cure for hemochromatosis, the condition can be safely and simply treated. The treatment process usually consists of regularly removing blood from your body (phlebotomy), just as if you were donating blood, to reduce your iron levels. The amount of blood drawn is determined by your age, your overall health, and the severity of your iron overload.

Initially, your treatment schedule may consist of one pint of blood drawn once or twice a week, usually in a hospital or in your doctor's office. Once your iron levels return to normal, it may only be necessary to have blood drawn four to six times a year.

For people who can't undergo phlebotomy, for example, if they have heart problems or other health complications caused by hemochromatosis, their doctor may prescribe a medication to cause their body to expel iron through urine or stool in a process called chelation.

If you suffer from hemochromatosis, in addition to treatment, avoid multivitamins containing iron and vitamin C and avoid alcohol to help reduce your risk for complications.