Hemochromatosis

Hemochromatosis is a condition that occurs when too much iron builds up in the body. Small amounts of iron are normally stored in the liver and heart, but excess iron will eventually damage these organs.

There are two types of hemochromatosis:

  • Hereditary (genetic) hemochromatosis. The most common form of hemochromatosis is passed down through the genes in families.
  • Acquired (secondary) hemochromatosis. A person may develop acquired hemochromatosis from having many blood transfusions, certain blood disorders (such as thalassemia), or chronic liver disease or from taking excessive or unnecessary iron supplements. In rare cases, a person may develop hemochromatosis if his or her diet contains too much iron.

Hereditary hemochromatosis is one of the most common genetic disorders in white people, especially those of Northern European descent. Excess iron builds up slowly throughout life. Most people with hemochromatosis notice symptoms when they are age 40 to 60. These symptoms include fatigue, joint pain, weakness, excess urination, and weight loss.

If hemochromatosis is recognized early, it can be treated before other problems start. It is treated by removing excess iron from the blood, either by removing blood from the body (phlebotomy) or by taking a medicine (chelating agent) that binds to and removes iron from the body. Hereditary hemochromatosis requires treatment throughout a person's life. Acquired hemochromatosis does not need further treatment after the condition has been corrected.

Last Revised: October 15, 2012

Author: Healthwise Staff

Medical Review: Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine & Brian Leber, MDCM, FRCPC - Hematology

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