Hemochromatosis is a disorder in which the body absorbs too much iron and it starts to collect in organs, such as the liver and heart. Normally, a person absorbs about ten percent of the iron in the foods they eat. With hemochromatosis, the body absorbs up to thirty percent, leading to excessive iron in the body.
There are two types of hemochromatosis: primary and secondary. Primary hemochromatosis is the most common genetic disorder in the United States, affecting about one in every two-hundred to three-hundred Americans. In fact, one out of every eight to twelve people carries one abnormal gene for hemochromatosis.
Secondary (or acquired) hemochromatosis occurs when people require multiple blood transfusions due to other diseases, such as anemia or thalassemia. Secondary hemochromatosis may also occur in those with chronic alcoholism.
People with hemochromatosis may have joint and abdominal pain, loss of energy and/or sexual desire, loss of body hair or darkening of the skin (called bronzing). If the disease is severe enough, the iron starts to collect in the liver and heart and can cause cirrhosis and heart failure. It can affect the pancreas and cause problems with blood sugars.
Diagnosis and Treatment
If you or one of your family members has symptoms of hemochromatosis, or if one of your family members has been diagnosed with this condition, you should make an appointment with your primary care physicians as well as with a hepatologist.
Diagnosis for hemochromatosis can be usually made with blood tests, but a liver biopsy can be useful in assessing any liver damage. If there is a concern about heart involvement, an electrocardiogram (EKG) can detect electrical conduction problems or an echocardiogram can determine the overall function of the heart. Since hemochromatosis is a genetic disorder, blood tests can also be used to confirm the diagnosis and used to test other family members.
New York Methodist Hospital provides a comprehensive approach to managing this condition. Treatment involves eliminating the excess iron in the body, which is usually accomplished through phlebotomy, in which a portion of the blood is removed from the body each week, until iron levels have improved. It is also important to know that there are special low-iron diets for people with hemochromatosis. Alcohol should be avoided since it can accelerate liver damage. Iron pills, or multivitamins with iron should also be avoided, as should breakfast cereals fortified with iron.
Find a physician specializing in the treatment of liver diseases here.
To contact the Division of Gastroenterology, call 718.780.3851.