Hemochromatosis

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Definition & Facts

Hemochromatosis is a disorder in which extra iron builds up in the body to harmful levels. Without treatment, hemochromatosis can cause iron overload, a buildup of iron that can damage many parts of the body, including your liver, heart, pancreas, endocrine glands, and joints.

Symptoms & Causes

With the buildup of harmful levels of iron, hemochromatosis can cause symptoms including feeling tired or weak, pain in the joints, loss of interest in sex or erectile dysfunction, pain in the abdomen over the liver, and darkening of skin color. Gene mutations cause the most common type of hemochromatosis.

Diagnosis

Doctors diagnose hemochromatosis based on blood tests to check levels of iron and certain proteins in the blood and to check for gene mutations that commonly cause hemochromatosis. In some cases, doctors may also use a liver biopsy to confirm iron overload is present.

Treatment

Treatment of hemochromatosis can improve symptoms and prevent complications. In most cases, doctors treat hemochromatosis with phlebotomy, or drawing about a pint of blood at a time, on a regular schedule. This is the most direct and safe way to lower body stores of iron.

Eating, Diet, & Nutrition

If you have hemochromatosis, you should eat a healthy, well-balanced diet. Your doctor may recommend avoiding raw shellfish, avoiding iron and vitamin C supplements, and limiting alcohol. If you have cirrhosis, you should completely stop drinking alcohol.

Clinical Trials

The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) and other components of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) conduct and support research into many diseases and conditions.

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Related Research

This content is provided as a service of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), part of the National Institutes of Health. The NIDDK translates and disseminates research findings to increase knowledge and understanding about health and disease among patients, health professionals, and the public. Content produced by the NIDDK is carefully reviewed by NIDDK scientists and other experts.

The NIDDK would like to thank:
Adrian M. Di Bisceglie, M.D., Saint Louis University School of Medicine