Hemochromatosis happens when your body absorbs too much iron. This excess iron is stored in organs like your liver, pancreas, or heart and can damage them. If untreated, hemochromatosis may shorten your life.
When it comes to iron, you can definitely have too much of a good thing.
Hemochromatosis, also called iron overload, is when your body absorbs too much iron — perhaps two to three times as much as it should.
The iron begins to build up in your body and accumulate in tissues. It can cause damage to your organs, including your liver, heart, pancreas, and adrenal glands.
However, you can manage hemochromatosis. The sooner it’s diagnosed and treatment begins, the better.
There’s no cure for hemochromatosis, but there are effective treatment options to manage it.
In fact, if your condition is diagnosed early and you receive regular treatment, your life expectancy may not be affected.
For people who receive a diagnosis and begin treatment before organs are damaged, their life expectancy is good — similar to people without hemochromatosis.
High iron levels can be toxic. If hemochromatosis is not caught early and treated appropriately, those high iron levels can cause major damage to some of your organs, including your liver and pancreas.
Depending on where and how severe the damage is, that could lead to life threatening conditions, such as:
Each of these conditions may shorten your life span.
There is no cure for hemochromatosis. But treatment can manage the condition, relieve symptoms, and increase longevity.
Medical treatment options focus on removing excess iron from your body. There are two main treatment options:
This is the most common treatment for hemochromatosis. It removes excess iron from your body by removing some blood on a regular schedule.
Most people will have a pint of blood removed once or twice a week until their iron and ferritin levels return to a normal range. This process may take several months.
Usually, you can get the blood drawn in a blood bank, just as you would if you were donating blood.
Once your iron and ferritin levels return to normal, you may be able to start a less-frequent phlebotomy schedule. During this maintenance stage, you might only need blood drawn once every
Your doctor will continue to monitor your iron to make sure you’re on track for the correct amount of blood removal.
If you developed hemochromatosis after receiving blood transfusions to treat anemia, you won’t be able to undergo phlebotomy. Instead, your doctor may prescribe chelating medication. It binds to iron so it can pass out of your body in your urine.
These medications are available in oral and injected forms. However, they may not be as effective as phlebotomy treatment to remove iron.
Infants who develop neonatal hemochromatosis, a very rare form that affects newborn babies, may need an exchange transfusion. During this treatment, blood is removed and replaced with healthy donor blood.
Treatment for other associated conditions
Hemochromatosis may cause other health conditions. These can be treated with things like:
- minor medical procedures
- liver transplant
What you can do at home
Your doctor may recommend following a hemochromatosis diet. It includes fruits and vegetables as well as legumes and grains that inhibit iron absorption.
Your diet may also include lean sources of protein that are lower in iron as well as tea and coffee, which contain tannins that also inhibit iron absorption.
Your doctor may also advise you to avoid these foods:
- raw seafood
- too much red meat
- foods that are fortified with iron
- foods that are rich in vitamins A and C (which enhance iron absorption)
- iron supplements
Since alcohol can damage your liver, which is already at risk when you have hemochromatosis, your doctor may also suggest avoiding alcoholic beverages.
If you have hemochromatosis and haven’t developed damage to your organs or other diseases due to high iron levels, it may not affect your life expectancy.
However, throughout your life, you will likely need treatments to keep your iron levels in check.
It is important to follow your treatment plan closely. Let your doctor know immediately if you notice that you’re developing symptoms that suggest your iron levels are too high, such as:
How many kinds of hemochromatosis are there?
According to the
- Primary, or hereditary, hemochromatosis: A genetic mutation to the HFE gene usually causes this type.
- Secondary hemochromatosis: Too much iron from blood transfusions or a high iron diet causes this type.
- Neonatal hemochromatosis: This type occurs in a fetus when the liver is damaged in the womb, causing excess iron to build up.
What are the possible complications of untreated hemochromatosis?
As a result of hemochromatosis, you may develop conditions such as:
When hemochromatosis progresses to a more advanced state, it can also lead to serious liver complications, such as:
When diagnosed and treated promptly, hemochromatosis should not shorten your life.
However, when hemochromatosis is not treated appropriately, it can progress to an advanced form that can seriously damage your body enough to affect your life span.