Signs and Symptoms of Hemochromatosis
We want to help you understand how hemochromatosis can affect your body. Even without symptoms, the slow buildup of iron in the body affects the liver, heart, pancreas and hormone levels, causing a number of potentially serious effects.
- Liver cells become scarred and fibrous. Liver damage makes it hard for your liver to function normally, disrupting your ability to digest food and process medicines, toxins and other waste products.
- Your heart muscle can become damaged, leading to heart problems, including heart failure.
- The pancreas becomes damaged and may make less insulin than your body needs. With too little insulin, the level of sugar in your blood rises and you may become diabetic.
You may not have any symptoms for years. When they do manifest, they are most likely to appear in middle age and may be easily overlooked without a diagnosis.
- Fatigue (the most common symptom)
- Joint pains (especially in the finger, hips, and knees)
- A change in your skin color to gray or brown
- Episodes of rapid heart rate
- Irregular or no menstrual periods, and trouble getting pregnant
- Symptoms of diabetes, such as frequent urination and excessive thirst
Symptoms of cirrhosis of the liver, including nausea, loss of appetite, swelling of the abdomen, abdominal pain and vomiting of blood.
Causes and Detection
More common in men, especially those of English, French or Swedish descent, hemochromatosis is caused by an inherited tendency to store too much iron. Some people do not have the disease but are carriers. These individuals may pass the disease onto their children.
Hemochromatosis can be diagnosed through blood tests, which can detect the problem before symptoms appear. If blood tests for hemochromatosis are positive, your provider may perform a liver biopsy by numbing the area near the liver and inserting a hollow needle to remove some liver tissue. This will help providers understand the severity of your condition and its progress.
If you have a family history of hemochromatosis, we recommend getting a genetic blood test to see if you have the disease or are a carrier. Early and continued treatment, including regular blood tests, can prevent your iron levels from becoming too high, prevent eventual organ damage and allow you to keep living a normal life.