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Hemochromatosis

Hemochromatosis is the most common form of iron overload disease. Too much iron in the body causes hemochromatosis. Iron is important because it is part of hemoglobin, a molecule in the blood that transports oxygen from the lungs to all body tissues. However, too much iron in the body leads to iron overload—a buildup of extra iron that, without treatment, can damage organs such as the liver, heart, and pancreas; endocrine glands; and joints.

The three types of hemochromatosis are primary hemochromatosis, also called hereditary hemochromatosis; secondary hemochromatosis; and neonatal hemochromatosis.

What is hemochromatosis?

Hemochromatosis is the most common form of iron overload disease. Too much iron in the body causes hemochromatosis. Iron is important because it is part of hemoglobin, a molecule in the blood that transports oxygen from the lungs to all body tissues. However, too much iron in the body leads to iron overload—a buildup of extra iron that, without treatment, can damage organs such as the liver, heart, and pancreas; endocrine glands; and joints.

The three types of hemochromatosis are primary hemochromatosis, also called hereditary hemochromatosis; secondary hemochromatosis; and neonatal hemochromatosis

What are the symptoms of hemochromatosis?

A person with hemochromatosis may notice one or more of the following symptoms:

Not everyone with hemochromatosis will develop these symptoms.

How is hemochromatosis treated?

Health care providers treat hemochromatosis by drawing blood. This process is called phlebotomy. Phlebotomy rids the body of extra iron. This treatment is simple, inexpensive, and safe.

Based on the severity of the iron overload, a patient will have phlebotomy to remove a pint of blood once or twice a week for several months to a year, and occasionally longer. Health care providers will test serum ferritin levels periodically to monitor iron levels. The goal is to bring serum ferritin levels to the low end of the average range and keep them there. Depending on the lab, the level is 25 to 50 μg/L.

After phlebotomy reduces serum ferritin levels to the desired level, patients may need maintenance phlebotomy treatment every few months. Some patients may need phlebotomies more often. Serum ferritin tests every 6 months or once a year will help determine how often a patient should have blood drawn. Many blood donation centers provide free phlebotomy treatment for people with hemochromatosis.

Treating hemochromatosis before organs are damaged can prevent complications such as cirrhosis, heart problems, arthritis, and diabetes. Treatment cannot cure these conditions in patients who already have them at diagnosis. However, treatment will help most of these conditions improve. The treatment’s effectiveness depends on the degree of organ damage. For example, treating hemochromatosis can stop the progression of liver damage in its early stages and lead to a normal life expectancy. However, if a patient develops cirrhosis, his or her chance of developing liver cancer increases, even with phlebotomy treatment. Arthritis usually does not improve even after phlebotomy removes extra iron.

 

If you have any questions or wish to schedule an appointment, please do not hesitate to call the office at (706) 548-0058. Remember that we usually require that you see a primary care physician (your family doctor or PCP) before we can schedule you. If you are having a medical emergency, get medical attention immediately at your nearest healthcare provider:

Athens Regional Medical Center: (706) 475-7000
St. Mary's Hospital: (706) 354-3000

 

This informational material is taken from the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Resources.

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