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Hemochromatosis: If you don't know what it is, you should

July 26, 1999
Web posted at: 5:59 PM EDT (2159 GMT)

In this story:

What is hemochromatosis?

Early detection is key




By Kiki Alderon

If you have any of the following conditions, you should be screened for hemochromatosis: an enlarged liver, cirrhosis or cancer of the liver, arthritis, diabetes or heart irregularities. Other symptoms include:
  • weakness and/or fatigue
  • abdominal pain
  • bronzed skin that is not the result of sun exposure
  • decreased libido
  • impotence
  • loss of bone density
  • (WebMD) -- If, say, 300 Americans had to name the most common genetic disorder in the United States, most of them probably wouldn't guess the correct answer.

    What is hemochromatosis?

    Hemochromatosis is a frequently asymptomatic disorder in which the body absorbs too much iron from food. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta estimates that 1.5 million Americans are affected by iron overload. If left untreated, iron overload can result in iron accumulation in the organs and joints, causing damage to the liver, heart and endocrine glands.

    A person who inherits the gene for the disorder from one parent may have a mild case of iron overload but is unlikely to experience complications. If both parents pass along the gene, however, the person eventually will suffer significantly from iron overload. Twelve percent of Americans have inherited the gene from one parent; less than 1 percent have inherited it from both, according to Dr. Victor Herbert, a professor of medicine and chief of the hematology research lab at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York. The percentage of people with iron overload varies by population group. Irish-Americans, for example, are more likely than the general population to have the disorder.

    Men tend to have higher iron levels than women, who regularly eliminate iron through menstruation as well as pregnancy and lactation, according to the American Liver Foundation. A healthy level of total-body iron is 3 grams for women and 10 grams for men, says Herbert.

    Early detection is key

    More often than not hemochromatosis is asymptomatic. Men can begin to experience symptoms in their 20s; women typically experience symptoms with the onset of menopause. Symptoms may include weakness, liver problems (such as enlargment), arthritis and even diabetes.

    Once excess iron has caused damage, it cannot be reversed. If left untreated, hemochromatosis can be fatal. Therefore, early detection is essential. If you have any symptoms (see "Symptoms and complications"), you should request screening for the disorder, which is not usually included in routine blood testing.


    Weekly blood removals, or phlebotomies, over a period of months to several years will gradually force the bone marrow to tap stored iron, which will reduce iron levels. Once iron stores reach normal levels, blood removals generally are performed once every two to four months to prevent reaccumulation. Each unit of blood drawn removes 250 milligrams of iron, according to the Mayo Clinic. Over time, treatment can keep iron levels within healthy limits.


    Some doctors, hearing complaints of fatigue and knowing little about the condition, may prescribe vitamins with iron. And ironically, it is possible to have both hemochromatosis and anemia, as there are different forms of anemia, according to the American Liver Foundation. In any case, people with iron overload should avoid iron supplements. Doctors recommend that they also avoid vitamin C supplements and alcohol, both of which increase iron absorption.

    Copyright 1999 by WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved.

    CDC recommends routine screening for iron overload
    Iron overload - Early diagnosis can prevent serious damage

    American Hemochromatosis Society
    American Liver Foundation - Hemochromatosis
    Hereditary Hemochromatosis Genetic Testing - A Family Guide
    National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse
    Mayo Clinic: Hemochromatosis
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