Porphyrias are a group of rare inherited blood disorders. People with these disorders have problems making a substance called heme in their bodies. Heme is made of body chemicals called porphyrin, which are bound to iron.

Heme is a component of hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen. It helps red blood cells carry oxygen and gives them their red color. Heme is also found in myoglobin, a protein in the heart and skeletal muscles.

The body goes through several steps to make heme. In people with porphyria, the body lacks certain enzymes needed to complete this process. This causes porphyrin to accumulate in tissues and blood. This may cause a variety of symptoms, ranging from mild to severe. The most common symptoms of porphyria are abdominal pain, light sensitivity, and problems with the muscles and nervous system. The symptoms of porphyria vary and depend on which enzyme is missing.

Porphyria is a genetic disease. According to the National Institutes of Health, most types of porphyria are inherited from an abnormal gene, called a gene mutation, from one parent. However, certain factors may trigger symptoms of porphyria, known as attacks. Factors include:

  • use of certain medications
  • use of hormones, such as estrogen
  • alcohol use
  • smoking
  • infection
  • exposure to sunlight
  • stress
  • dieting and fasting

There are several types of porphyria, which are classified into two categories: hepatic and erythropoietic. Hepatic forms of the disorder are caused by problems in the liver. They’re associated with symptoms such as abdominal pain and problems with the central nervous system. Erythropoietic forms are caused by problems in red blood cells. They’re associated with light sensitivity.

The main types of porphyrias include:

  • delta-aminolevulinate-dehydratase deficiency porphyria
  • acute intermittent porphyria
  • hereditary coproporphyria
  • variegate porphyria
  • congenital erythropoietic porphyria
  • porphyria cutanea tarda (PCT)
  • hepatoerythropoietic porphyria
  • erythropoietic protoporphyria

According to the American Porphyria Foundation, PCT is the most common type of porphyria. It’s associated with extreme sensitivity to sunlight.

Symptoms depend upon the type of porphyria. Severe abdominal pain is present in all types, as well as urine that is reddish-brown in color. This is caused by the build-up of porphyrins, and typically occurs after an attack.

Symptoms associated with hepatic disease include:

  • limb pain
  • neuropathy
  • hypertension
  • tachycardia (fast heartbeat)
  • electrolyte imbalance

Symptoms associated with erythropoietic disease include:

  • extreme skin sensitivity to light
  • anemia (when the body does not produce enough new red blood cells)
  • changes in skin pigmentation
  • erratic behavior related to sun exposure

Many tests can help diagnose this condition.

Tests that look for physical problems include:

  • computed tomography (CT) scans
  • chest X-ray
  • echocardiogram (EKG)

Tests for blood problems include:

  • urine test for fluorescence
  • porphobilinogen (PBG) urine test
  • complete blood count (CBC)

There’s no cure for porphyria. Treatment focuses on managing symptoms. Most cases are treated with medication.

Treatments for hepatic disease include:

  • beta blockers (Atenolol) to manage blood pressure
  • high carbohydrate diet to aid recovery
  • opioids for pain management
  • hematin to shorten attacks

Treatments for erythropoietic disease include:

  • iron supplements for anemia
  • blood transfusions
  • bone marrow transplant

Porphyria cannot be prevented. However, symptoms can be reduced by avoiding or eliminating triggers.

Factors that should be eliminated include:

  • recreational drugs
  • mental stress
  • excessive drinking
  • certain antibiotics

Preventing erythropoietic symptoms focuses on reducing light exposure by:

  • staying out of bright sunlight
  • wearing long sleeves, hats, and other protective clothing while outside
  • asking for protection during surgery (in rare cases phototoxic injury can occur; this happens when light perforates the organs and leads to infection)

Porphyria is incurable and difficult to manage. Complications are common. They include:

  • coma
  • gallstones
  • paralysis
  • respiratory failure
  • liver disease and failure
  • skin scarring

Long-term outlook varies widely. Some people may not be diagnosed until after damage has been done.

Permanent damage may include:

  • breathing difficulties requiring continuous oxygen
  • walking problems
  • anxiety attacks
  • scarring

Early diagnosis can help you lead a relatively normal life. Management is also very important.

If you have an inherited condition, talk to a genetic counselor. They can help you understand the risk of passing it to your children.