Online Shopping Customer Service 0300 3033380*
Home
Iron overload disorder

Shopping Cart

Health Advice
Main Menu
Newsletter

Name:

Email:

Iron overload disorder Content Supplied by NHS Choices
Introduction

Haemochromatosis is an inherited condition in which iron levels in the body slowly build up over many years.

This build-up of iron, known as iron overload, can cause unpleasant symptoms. If it isn't treated, this can damage parts of the body such as the liver, joints, pancreas and heart.

Haemochromatosis most often affects people of white north European background, and is particularly common in countries where lots of people have a Celtic background, such as Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

This page covers:

Symptoms

When to see your GP

Treatments

Causes

Possible complications

Symptoms of haemochromatosis

Symptoms of haemochromatosis usually start between the ages of 30 and 60.

Common symptoms include:

Read more about symptoms of haemochromatosis.

When to see your GP

See your GP if you have:

  • persistent or worrying symptoms that could be caused by haemochromatosis - particularly if you have a northern European family background
  • a parent or sibling with haemochromatosis, even if you don't have symptoms yourself - tests can be done to check if you're at risk of developing problems

Talk to your GP about whether you should have blood tests to check for haemochromatosis.

Read more about tests for haemochromatosis.

Treatments for haemochromatosis

There's currently no cure for haemochromatosis, but there are treatments that can reduce the amount of iron in the body and reduce the risk of damage.

The main treatments are:

  • phlebotomy - a procedure to remove some of your blood; this may need to be done every week at first, but can be done every few months once your iron level comes down to normal
  • chelation therapy - where you take medication to reduce the amount of iron in your body; this is only very rarely used if it's not easy to regularly remove some of your blood

You don't need to make any big changes to your diet to control your iron levels if you're having treatment.

But you'll usually be advised to avoid breakfast cereals containing added iron, iron or vitamin C supplements, and drinking too much alcohol.

Read more about how haemochromatosis is treated.

Causes of haemochromatosis

Haemochromatosis is caused by a faulty gene that affects how the body absorbs iron from food.

You're at risk of developing the condition if both of your parents have this faulty gene and you inherit one copy from each of them.

If you only inherit one copy of the genetic fault, you won't get haemochromatosis, but there's a chance you could pass the faulty gene on to any children you have.

Even if you do inherit two copies of the genetic fault, you won't necessarily get haemochromatosis.

Only a small number of people with two copies of this genetic fault will ever develop the condition. It's not clear exactly why this is.

Read more about the causes of haemochromatosis.

Complications of haemochromatosis

If the condition is diagnosed and treated early on, haemochromatosis doesn't affect life expectancy and is unlikely to result in serious problems.

But if it's not found until it's more advanced, the high iron levels can damage parts of the body.

This can lead to potentially serious complications, such as:

  • liver problems - including scarring of the liver (cirrhosis) or liver cancer
  • diabetes - where the level of sugar in the blood becomes too high
  • arthritis - pain and swelling in the joints
  • heart failure - where the heart is unable to pump blood around the body properly

Read more about complications of haemochromatosis.

Symptoms

Symptoms of haemochromatosis usually begin between the ages of 30 and 60, although they can occasionally occur earlier.

The symptoms tend to develop earlier in men than in women. Women often don't experience problems until after the menopause.

Sometimes there are no symptoms and the condition is only found during a blood test.

Early symptoms

Initial symptoms of haemochromatosis can include:

These symptoms can have many different causes and may sometimes just be put down to getting older.

Later problems

As the condition progresses, it can also cause problems such as:

These problems are often caused by complications of haemochromatosis that can occur if the condition isn't treated early on.

When to see your GP

See your GP if you have:

  • persistent or worrying symptoms that could be caused by haemochromatosis - particularly if you have a northern European family background, as the condition is most common in this group
  • a parent or sibling with haemochromatosis, even if you don't have symptoms yourself - tests can be done to check if you're at risk of developing problems

Talk to your GP about whether you should have blood tests to check for haemochromatosis.

Read more about how haemochromatosis is diagnosed.

Causes

Haemochromatosis is caused by a genetic fault that can be passed on to a child by his or her parents.

Most cases are linked to a fault in a gene called HFE, which affects your ability to absorb iron from food.

Normally, your body maintains a steady level of iron. The amount of iron absorbed from food varies according to your body's need for it.

But people with haemochromatosis can't control their iron level. The level gradually increases over time and iron starts to build up in their organs, damaging them in the process.

How haemochromatosis is inherited

Everyone receives two sets of genes - one from their father and one from their mother. You're only at risk of haemochromatosis if you inherit the faulty HFE gene from both of your parents.

If you only inherit the faulty gene from one parent, you'll be at risk of passing it on to your children - known as being a "carrier" - but you won't develop haemochromatosis yourself.

In certain ethnic groups, such as people with a Celtic background - which is common in Ireland, Scotland and Wales - it's quite common to be a carrier of the faulty HFE gene.

If two carriers have a baby, there's a:

  • 1 in 4 (25%) chance the baby will receive two normal versions of the HFE gene, so they won't have haemochromatosis and won't be a carrier
  • 1 in 2 (50%) chance the baby will inherit one normal HFE gene and one faulty one, so they'll be a carrier but won't develop haemochromatosis
  • 1 in 4 (25%) chance the baby will inherit two copies of the faulty HFE gene and will be at risk of developing haemochromatosis

But inheriting two copies of the genetic fault doesn't mean you'll definitely get haemochromatosis.

For unknown reasons, only a small proportion of people with two copies of the faulty HFE gene will ever develop the condition.

Diagnosis

Haemochromatosis can usually be diagnosed with blood tests.

Speak to your GP about getting tested if:

  • you have persistent symptoms of haemochromatosis - these symptoms can have a number of causes, and your GP may want to rule out some of these before arranging a blood test
  • a parent or sibling has been diagnosed with haemochromatosis - even if you don't have any symptoms, you may be at risk of developing the condition at some point

The tests you may have are outlined below.

Blood tests

Several blood tests are needed to diagnose haemochromatosis.

You'll have tests to check:

  • the amount of iron in your blood - known as your transferrin saturation level
  • the amount of iron stored in your body - known as your serum ferritin level
  • if your DNA carries a genetic fault associated with the condition - read about the causes of haemochromatosis for more about this

These tests will help show if you have haemochromatosis, if you're a carrier of a genetic fault linked to the condition, or if you might have another condition that causes high iron levels.

If these tests detect a problem, you'll usually be referred to a hospital specialist to discuss what the results mean and whether you might need any further tests or treatment.

Further tests

If blood tests show that you have haemochromatosis, you may need to have some further tests to check if the condition has caused any organ damage, particularly damage to your liver.

These tests may include:

  • a blood test to check for substances that indicate a problem with your liver
  • a liver biopsy - where a needle is used to remove a small sample of liver tissue under local anaesthetic so it can be checked for signs of damage
  • a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan to check for iron in your liver and look for signs of liver damage

Liver damage is one of the main complications of haemochromatosis.

Treatment

There's currently no cure for haemochromatosis, but there are treatments that can reduce the amount of iron in your body.

This can help relieve some of the symptoms and reduce the risk of damage to organs such as the heart, liver and pancreas.

The main treatments and things you can do are outlined below.

Phlebotomy

The most commonly used treatment for haemochromatosis is a procedure to remove some of your blood, known as a phlebotomy or venesection.

The procedure is similar to giving blood. You lie back in a chair and a needle is used to drain a small amount of blood - usually about 500ml, or just less than a pint - from a vein in your arm.

The removed blood includes red blood cells that contain iron, and your body will use up more iron to replace them, helping to reduce the amount of iron in your body.

There are two main stages to treatment:

  • induction - blood is removed on a frequent basis (usually weekly) until your iron levels are normal; this can sometimes take up to a year or more
  • maintenance - blood is removed less often (usually every two or three months) to keep your iron levels under control; this is usually needed for the rest of your life

Chelation therapy

A treatment called chelation therapy may be used in a small number of cases where regular phlebotomies aren't possible because it's difficult to remove blood regularly - for example, if you have very thin or fragile veins.

This involves taking medication that removes iron from your blood and releases it into your urine or poo.

A commonly used medication is deferasirox. It comes as a tablet that's usually taken once a day.

It's unlicensed for the treatment of haemochromatosis, which means it hasn't undergone extensive clinical trials for this use. But your doctor may recommend it if they feel the possible benefits outweigh any risks.

Diet and alcohol

You don't need to make any big changes to your diet, such as avoiding all foods containing iron, if you have haemochromatosis.

This is unlikely to be of much extra help if you're having one of the treatments above, and could mean you don't get all the nutrition you need.

You'll usually be advised to:

  • have a generally healthy, balanced diet
  • avoid breakfast cereals that have been "fortified" with extra iron
  • avoid taking iron and vitamin C supplements - these may be harmful for people with high iron levels
  • be careful not to eat raw oysters and clams - these may contain a type of bacteria that can cause serious infections in people with high iron levels
  • avoid drinking excessive amounts of alcohol - this can increase the level of iron in your body and put extra strain on your liver
Complications

If haemochromatosis isn't diagnosed and treated early on, iron can build up in the body and cause serious problems.

Some of the main complications associated with the condition are outlined below.

Liver damage

The liver can be very sensitive to the effects of iron, and many people with haemochromatosis will have some degree of liver damage.

This often won't cause any obvious symptoms at first, but can be picked up during tests for haemochromatosis.

If significant scarring of the liver (cirrhosis) occurs, you may experience:

  • tiredness and weakness
  • loss of appetite
  • weight loss
  • feeling sick
  • very itchy skin
  • tenderness or pain around the liver
  • yellowing of the eyes and skin (jaundice)

Cirrhosis also increases your risk of developing liver cancer.

Surgery and medication can help relieve symptoms of cirrhosis, but the only way to achieve a complete cure is to have a liver transplant.

Diabetes

Diabetes is a condition in which a person's blood sugar level becomes too high. It can occur in people with haemochromatosis if high levels of iron damage the pancreas.

The pancreas is an organ that produces insulin. Insulin is a hormone that's used to change sugar (glucose) from your diet into energy.

If the pancreas is damaged, it may not produce enough insulin, which can lead to an increase in the level of sugar in the blood.

Symptoms can include:

  • needing to pee more often than usual, particularly at night
  • feeling very thirsty
  • feeling very tired

Lifestyle changes such as eating healthily and exercising regularly can help, although some people need to take medication to control their blood sugar level.

Read more about how diabetes is treated.

Arthritis

In severe and advanced cases of haemochromatosis, the high levels of iron can damage the joints. This is known as arthritis.

The main symptoms of arthritis are:

  • joint pain
  • stiff joints
  • swelling (inflammation) in the joints

It may be possible to relieve the symptoms with painkillers and steroid medication.

But if significant damage has occurred, it may be necessary to replace the affected joint with an artificial one, such as a hip replacement or knee replacement.

Heart problems

If excess iron builds up in the heart, it can damage the muscles of the heart (cardiomyopathy).

This can lead to heart failure, which is where the heart has become so damaged it struggles to pump blood around the body properly.

Symptoms of heart failure include:

Heart failure can usually be treated with medication.

Read more about how heart failure is treated.

 
Top