What is iron overload disease?
Iron overload disease is a disease that causes iron to build up throughout the body. The buildup of iron can damage or destroy organs. If the disease is found early, it can be treated and the damage can be prevented.
The liver, heart, pancreas, and hormone levels are most affected by the slow buildup of iron in the body.
What is the cause of iron overload disease?
Another name for iron overload disease is hemochromatosis. There are 2 types of Hemochromatosis i.e. primary and secondary.
- Primary hemochromatosis is inherited. It is caused by a defect in the genes that control how much iron you absorb from food.
- Generally, secondary hemochromatosis is the result of another disease or condition that causes iron overload.
If you inherited the gene that causes primary hemochromatosis from both of your parents, it is likely you will have the disease. It means that you have 2 faulty genes—one from each parent. The faulty genes cause your body to absorb more iron than usual from the foods you eat.
If you inherited the faulty gene from just 1 of your parents, you are a carrier but usually you will not have the disease. Being a carrier means that you can pass the defective gene to your children.
Secondary hemochromatosis is not a genetic problem. It tends to occur in people who have frequent blood transfusions to treat certain kinds of anemia. It can also sometimes happen if you take too many iron supplements.
How is iron overload diagnosed?
Iron overload disease can be diagnosed from blood tests. These tests can find the problem before symptoms appear.
If you don’t have any symptoms or family history of the disease, it is usually discovered from blood tests done for some other reason.
When these blood tests show signs of liver damage or too much iron, specific blood tests for iron overload disease can be performed. If these blood tests show that you have iron overload disease, you may have a liver biopsy.
When you have a liver biopsy your doctor numbs the skin over the area of the liver. Your doctor then puts a hollow needle through your skin and into your liver. The needle is used to remove a tiny amount of liver tissue. The tissue is examined for signs of too much iron and liver damage.
What are the symptoms of iron overload?
You may not have any symptoms for years. Symptoms usually start in middle age. They include:
- Tiredness (the most common symptom)
- Arthritis (joint pains, especially in the fingers, hips, and knees)
- A change in your skin color to gray or brown
- Times when you have a rapid heart rate
- Problems having or keeping an erection
- Irregular or no menstrual periods
- Trouble getting pregnant
- Symptoms of diabetes, such as being very thirsty and urinating a lot
How is iron overload treated?
The treatment is very simple: excess iron is removed from your body by removing blood. When your level of iron is high, you may need to have a pint of blood removed once or twice a week until your iron level is normal. Your blood is taken the same way it is when you donate blood.
You may need to have blood removed every week for several months. Your iron levels will be checked with blood tests. The tests will determine if, when, and how much blood needs to be taken. When your iron levels are back to normal, you will probably need to repeat the treatment every 2 to 4 months to keep normal levels.
If your liver or other organs are damaged and causing problems, these problems will also be treated. You may need to take medicine for problems such as:
- Thyroid problems
- Erectile dysfunction
- Heart disease
Joint pain can be treated with anti-inflammatory medicines.
If your liver has started scarring and the iron overload disease isn’t treated, it may progress to serious liver disease and liver failure. A liver transplant may be the only option in this case.
An important part of treatment is to avoid drinking alcohol and avoid taking medicines that can worsen liver damage. It is also important to avoid iron and vitamin C supplements, both of which are in many preparations of multiple vitamins. You need to avoid vitamin C because it helps your body absorb more iron.