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Hemochromatosis is a disease that causes iron
deposits to build up throughout the body.
The buildup of iron can severely damage or destroy organs. If the
disease is detected early, it can be treated and the damage prevented. Hemochromatosis is also called iron overload
How does it occur?
Hemochromatosis is caused by an inherited tendency
to store too much iron. This slow
buildup of iron in the body especially affects the liver, heart, pancreas, and
About 3 of every 1,000 people in the US have
hemochromatosis, especially those of English, French, Swedish, or Portuguese
descent. Men are much more likely to have symptoms than women. Before menopause women are protected somewhat
from the disease because they lose quite a bit of iron during menstruation and
childbirth. Some people do not have the
disease but are carriers. Being a
carrier means that you can pass the gene for the disease on to your children.
You may not have any symptoms for years. Symptoms usually appear in middle age. They include:
Hemochromatosis can be diagnosed for blood
tests. These tests can detect the
problem before symptoms appear. For
people who have no symptoms and no known family history of hemochromatosis, the
disease is usually discovered through blood tests done for some other
reason. When these blood tests show
signs of excess iron or liver damage, specific blood tests for iron overload
disease can be done. If blood tests for
hemochromatosis are positive, you may have a liver biopsy. When you have a liver biopsy your health care
provider numbs the skin over the area of the liver (by the lower right rib
cage). He or she then inserts a hollow
needle and removes some liver tissue.
The treatment is very simple: excess iron is removed
from your body by removing blood. When
you level of iron is high, you may need to have a pint of blood removed each
week until your iron level is normal.
Your iron levels can be checked with blood tests. These tests will determine if, when, and how much
blood needs to be taken. When blood
removal has lowered your iron levels to normal, you will probably need to
repeat the treatment every 3 to 4 months to maintain normal levels.
If your liver or other organs are damaged, problems
resulting from the damage will also be treated.
If you have diabetes or thyroid problems, you will likely need to
continue your medication for these problems.
Impotence, which can be treated with male hormone (testosterone), will
also require continued treatment. Heart
disease can be treated with heart medication.
Joint pain can be treated with anti-inflammatory medicines.
Once liver scarring has begun, it may progress to
serious liver disease and liver failure.
A liver transplant may be an option in this situation.
An important part of treatment is to avoid alcohol
and medications that can worsen liver damage.
Once you start having symptoms, they usually
continue even though you are having treatments to remove excess iron. This means you will need to continue
treatment for heart, thyroid, liver, impotence, and joint problems.
If you do not have any symptoms of hemochromatosis,
you will have regular checks of your iron levels so blood can be removed when
your levels get too high. This will prevent
symptoms and organ damage.
If you have a family history of hemochromatosis, you
should have genetic testing or blood test to see if you have the disease or may
be a carrier. Early and continued
treatment, including regular blood tests, can prevent your iron levels from
becoming too high. This will prevent
organ damage and allow you to have a normal life.