What is hemochromatosis?

Hemochromatosis, also called iron overload, is a condition in which your body stores too much iron.

What is iron, and why do I need it?

Iron is a mineral found in certain foods. Your body needs iron to:

  • Help hemoglobin in blood cells carry oxygen throughout your body.
  • Make red blood cells.
  • Produce certain hormones.

Normally, your intestines absorb just the right amount of iron from the food you eat. But with hemochromatosis, the body absorbs extra iron and stores it in your organs, especially your heart, liver and pancreas.

Why is too much iron dangerous?

Too much iron can be toxic.

In the heart, it can cause:

Too much iron in the liver can lead to:

In addition, iron overload can cause:

  • Arthritis (joint damage).
  • Diabetes.
  • Problems with the spleen, adrenal glands, pituitary gland, gallbladder or thyroid.
  • Problems with the reproductive system, such as erectile dysfunction in men and early menopause in women.
  • Skin that may look noticeably more gray or bronze than usual.

If the condition isn't treated, it can lead to death.

How common is hemochromatosis?

The condition is fairly common, affecting more than a million Americans.

What causes hemochromatosis?

There are two types of hemochromatosis, each with different causes.

An inherited genetic change is the most common cause. It’s called primary hemochromatosis, hereditary hemochromatosis or classical hemochromatosis. With primary hemochromatosis, problems with the DNA come from both parents and cause the body to absorb too much iron.

In secondary hemochromatosis, medical treatments or other medical conditions cause the iron overload. Examples include:

Are certain people more likely to have primary hemochromatosis?

The inherited form of hemochromatosis is more common in white people with ancestors from Northern Europe. It’s less common in people with African-American, Hispanic, Asian or American Indian descent.

Men have hemochromatosis more than women. Women lose iron when they get their periods or have babies. Their bodies also store less iron. Hemochromatosis is also more common in older people because iron toxicity takes years to develop.

Other factors that increase the chances of developing hemochromatosis include alcohol abuse and a family history of:

  • Arthritis.
  • Diabetes.
  • Heart attack.
  • Erectile dysfunction.
  • Liver disease.

What are the symptoms of hemochromatosis?

Not every person with hemochromatosis develops symptoms. Some people with high levels of iron don’t have any problems, while others experience very serious symptoms.

Symptoms usually don’t appear until middle age, and they often look like signs of other conditions. These signs may include:

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 01/01/2021.

References

  • Iron Disorders Institute. Hemochromatosis. Accessed 12/26/2020.
  • National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Hemochromatosis. Accessed 12/26/2020.
  • National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements. Iron. Accessed 12/26/2020.
  • National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Hemochromatosis Accessed 12/26/2020.
  • Cleveland Clinic Disease Management Project. Hemochromatosis Accessed 12/26/2020.
  • American Liver Foundation. Hemochromatosis Accessed 12/26/2020.

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