Hemochromatosis, or iron overload, is a condition in which your body stores too much iron. It’s often genetic. It can cause serious damage to your body, including to your heart, liver and pancreas. You can’t prevent the disease, but early diagnosis and treatment can avoid, slow or reverse organ damage.
Hemochromatosis, also called iron overload, is a condition in which your body stores too much iron.
Iron is a mineral found in certain foods. Your body needs iron to:
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.
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:
If the condition isn't treated, it can lead to death.
The condition is fairly common, affecting more than a million Americans.
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:
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:
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:
If you potentially have hemochromatosis, your healthcare provider will:
Your healthcare provider may order:
Diet changes and other treatments can help ease the symptoms of hemochromatosis. They can also help prevent or delay further damage to your organs:
If another condition caused hemochromatosis, you may need treatment for that, too. And healthcare providers may recommend treating any problems caused by hemochromatosis.
You can’t prevent hemochromatosis, but you can get help controlling your iron levels. By identifying and treating hemochromatosis early, healthcare providers can help you avoid complications.
The outlook for hemochromatosis depends on the timing of diagnosis and treatment. If not caught and addressed early, severe hemochromatosis can cause serious problems. These complications can include organ damage and possible death.
But hemochromatosis is also a manageable disease. With early detection and treatment, you can survive and live a normal, healthy life. Sometimes organ damage can even be reversed.
Your healthcare provider will determine how long you need treatment.
If you are diagnosed with hemochromatosis, you'll need to have some blood withdrawn once a week to start. You may then be able to switch to every few months, though you’ll still need ongoing treatment.
Your healthcare provider can help you determine how much iron you need. It depends on several factors, including:
Your healthcare provider will probably suggest that you:
If you have hemochromatosis (or a family history of it) and are considering having children, consider genetic testing. You and your partner can get tested for the genetic change responsible, which is called the HFE gene. Your healthcare provider and genetic counselor can help you determine the likelihood of passing it on to your children.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Hemochromatosis is a common disease that makes the body store too much iron. Although it can cause serious problems, it’s very treatable, especially when identified early. Talk to your healthcare provider if you have symptoms of hemochromatosis or a family history of it. Genetic testing can identify the disease early so you can live a long, healthy life.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 01/01/2021.
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