Hemochromatosis is the buildup of iron in your body. Secondary hemochromatosis is when iron builds up in your tissue due to an underlying medical condition and not due to your genetics.

People with hemochromatosis store too much iron in tissues such as their:

  • liver
  • pancreas
  • joints
  • pituitary gland
  • heart
  • skin

The buildup of iron in these tissues can cause complications such as liver damage and heart problems. Receiving an early diagnosis and treating hemochromatosis properly can help you avoid these complications.

Read on to learn more about secondary hemochromatosis including its symptoms, causes, and treatment options.

Secondary hemochromatosis is the buildup of iron in your tissue due to an underlying medical condition. It’s most commonly caused by chronic blood transfusions used to treat conditions that cause low red blood cell counts.

The buildup of iron in your body can cause damage to organs such as your liver or pancreas if it’s left untreated.

What’s the difference between primary and secondary hemochromatosis?

Primary hemochromatosis, or hereditary hemochromatosis, is a genetic condition passed through families that causes the buildup of iron. It’s most often caused by a mutation in the HFE gene.

Secondary hemochromatosis isn’t a genetic condition, but it can be caused by blood transfusions used to treat genetic conditions such as thalassemia.

Learn more about hereditary hemochromatosis here.

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The buildup of iron in your tissues can lead to organ damage and symptoms that affect many different parts of your body. Symptoms of hemochromatosis can include:

Primary vs. secondary hemochromatosis deposit locations

Primary hemochromatosis primarily causes iron deposition in the liver and pancreas. In people with secondary hemochromatosis, the buildup is most common in:

  • liver cells
  • bone marrow
  • spleen
  • lymph nodes
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The most common cause of secondary hemochromatosis is chronic blood transfusions. Doctors often use blood transfusions to treat conditions that cause low red blood cell counts such as:

Other potential causes of secondary hemochromatosis are:

Very rarely, excess dietary iron intake can lead to secondary hemochromatosis. One situation where this might arise is heating or brewing alcohol in iron cookware.

Secondary hemochromatosis is more common in children than primary hemochromatosis.

Doctors can diagnose hemochromatosis by performing a blood test to look at your levels of:

Additionally, your doctor may want to order a genetic test to rule out primary hemochromatosis.

You may receive other tests to check for organ damage. These tests might include:

The main treatment for secondary hemochromatosis is iron chelation therapy. Iron chelation therapy involves taking medications that remove excess iron from your blood.

Treatment also involves managing the underlying cause of secondary hemochromatosis. For example, reducing your daily intake of an iron supplement.

The main treatment for primary hemochromatosis is phlebectomy, which is the medical term for removing blood.

Secondary hemochromatosis often has a good outlook if it’s diagnosed and treated promptly. If it’s left undiagnosed, it can lead to permanent damage to your organs.

Liver damage is particularly common in people with primary hemochromatosis. About 30% of people develop hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), the most common type of liver cancer

HCC is rarer in people with secondary hemochromatosis. A 2019 case study reported the fifth case of HCC in the medical literature arising in a person with secondary hemochromatosis.

Other potential complications include:

Secondary hemochromatosis is the buildup of iron levels in your body due to an underlying medical condition. The most common cause is repeated blood transfusions. Doctors typically use blood transfusions to treat conditions that cause low red blood cell counts.

The most common treatment for secondary hemochromatosis is taking medications to remove iron from your body. Receiving a prompt diagnosis and treatment can help you avoid serious complications of the disease.