Understanding Hemochromatosis

Hemochromatosis, also known as iron overload disease, is a malfunction in the way iron is absorbed from the intestinal tract which causes the body to absorb and store too much iron.  One of the main functions of the liver is to store and vitamins, iron, and other minerals.  If too much iron is stored in the liver it can damage it.  Hemochromatosis can also cause excess iron to be deposited in other organs and tissues, like the heart and pancreas, and can cause damage to these organs as well.  Hemochromatosis is estimated to affect around one in every 300-400 people.

The causes of hemochromatosis are not completely understood.  The one thing that is known about the disease is that it is inherited.  About one in every 10 people carries the gene for hemochromatosis.  You can carry one gene for the disease and not get it. You have to get a gene from both parents in order to develop hemochromatosis.

Symptoms of hemochromatosis do no usually develop until middle age.  However, the disease can develop at any age.  Women usually develop the disease later in life than men.  This is thought to happen because women lose substantial amounts of iron through menstruation and pregnancy. A person with hemochromatosis may experience fatigue, weakness, weight loss, abdominal pain, and joint pain. The buildup of excessive iron in the liver leads to scarring and hardening.  This damage to the liver is called cirrhosis.  Damage to the liver can lead to jaundice, or yellowing of the skin and eyes.  Hemochromatosis can cause damage to the pancreas which can result in the pancreas not making insulin.  When the pancreas does not make insulin, diabetes mellitus develops.  Large deposits of iron on the heart from hemochromatosis can it to become enlarged and damaged.

The treatment of hemochromatosis is to have one to two pints of blood removed each week or so.  Red blood cells contain rich amounts of iron.  By removing some of the red blood cells, you are able to reduce the amount of iron in the body.  Sometimes it can take several months in order to normal iron levels in the body.  Once iron levels are normal, blood draws are done periodically.

1.  “Hemochromatosis.”  Gicare.com. Jackson Siegelbaum Gastroenterology.  Web 27 Dec 2013.
2. “Hemochromatosis (Iron Storage Disease).”  CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). July 5, 2011.  Web 27 Dec 2013.