HomeHealth articlesiron chelationWhat Is Hemochromatosis?

Iron overload (Hemochromatosis) is a heterogeneous group of disease resulting from inherited and acquired causes, which leads to body destruction and complication.

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Sneha Kannan

Published At July 26, 2019
Reviewed AtFebruary 21, 2023

What is Hemochromatosis?

Consuming too much iron or too much iron absorption can damage the body. The skin color changes to bronze. High iron levels can be both good and bad for the cardiovascular system. It may lower the clogging of arteries, or it may show the risk of blood clots. While examining people, three types of risks were identified, which are:

So here, the higher levels of iron will protect the blood vessels from atherosclerosis and risk for formation of thrombosis related to stasis of blood.

Excessive iron is stored in the liver, heart, pancreas, and other organs. This can damage the pancreas, which causes diabetes, hereditary hemochromatosis, cancer, and heart disease.

In women, due to loss of blood during menses, hemochromatosis is less common than males. Blood loss reduces iron levels.

What Are the Types of IRON Overload?

Iron overload disorders can be divided into two types.

  1. Primary - Otherwise called classic hemochromatosis, which is passed on genetically.
  2. Secondary - It can result from anemia (Thalassemia), chronic liver disease (chronic hepatitis), or alcoholic liver disease.

Those who are diagnosed hemochromatosis need necessary treatment to avoid further iron deposition in the body.

What Causes Hemochromatosis?

Some genetic factors of two copies of mutated high iron (HFE gene) are the most important cause for hemochromatosis. In family history, if a parent has this gene, the child, brother, or sister might get this disease. Males are more commonly affected than females. Women may develop this disease after menopause or hysterectomy.

Healthy people absorb up to 10 % of iron of the total iron consumed. If 30 % or more iron is absorbed from the total consumed, it results in hemochromatosis. Excess iron destroys organs about 5 to 20 times the amount of iron in the body, which results in organ failures like cirrhosis, heart disease, and diabetes.

Juvenile hemochromatosis is an inherited disease that results from defects in the gene called hemojuvelin. A person without genetic mutation due to the result of a condition triggers secondary hemochromatosis.

  1. Thalassemia.
  2. Chronic liver disease due to hepatitis C.
  3. Alcoholic liver disease.
  4. Blood transfusions.
  5. Some diseases affect red blood cells.
  6. Drinking beer (African iron overload).
  7. Oral iron pills.
  8. Iron injections with or without vitamin C.
  9. Long term kidney dialysis.

In newborn babies, the accumulation of iron results in neonatal hemochromatosis.

What Are the Symptoms of IRON Overload?

  • Abdominal pain.
  • In females, amenorrhea.
  • High blood sugar.
  • Decreased libido in females, impotence in males.
  • Small testicles.
  • Bronzed skin.
  • Fatigue and pain on touch.
  • Weight loss, weakness.

They may develop arthritis, heart disease, joint diseases.

What Are the Diagnostic Tests?

  1. Serum transferrin saturation - If the saturation is more than 40%, it is considered too high.
  2. Serum ferritin - If serum transferrin saturation is higher than normal, we should check for ferritin.
  3. Liver function tests.
  4. Testing for gene mutations.
  5. Liver biopsy.

What Are the Treatment Options?

  • Blood removal.
  • Avoid iron supplements.
  • Avoid vitamin C.
  • Avoid alcohol.
  • Avoid eating raw fish and shellfish.

Frequently Asked Questions


Is Iron Overload the Same as Hemochromatosis?

Yes, hemochromatosis is a medical term for excess iron levels in the body (iron overload). This may cause severe damage to the body, causing various complications. Organs affected are the heart, liver, and pancreas. Early diagnosis and treatment can help slow down or reverse organ damage.


What Are the Warning Signs of Hemochromatosis?

Some warning signs of hemochromatosis are –
- Extreme fatigue.
- Severe weight loss.
- Bronze and grayish color of skin.
- Abdominal pain.
- Joint pain and weakness.


Can Iron Overload Be Reversed?

Iron overload cannot be reversed. Excess iron is stored in the body and deposited in various organs that are not removed from the body naturally. However, iron levels can be reduced with medical treatments and procedures like iron chelation therapy and phlebotomy (the process of withdrawing blood periodically to reduce iron levels in the body).


Which Test Is Commonly Used to Diagnose Hemochromatosis?

Serum transferrin saturation tests are used to diagnose hemochromatosis. This test measures the amount of iron bound to transferrin (protein). Transferrin saturation levels in the body higher than 40 percent indicate hemochromatosis.


At What Age Does Hemochromatosis Start?

Symptoms of hereditary hemochromatosis are present at birth. But most people do not experience symptoms in the later stages of life. For example, men usually experience symptoms after age 40, while women experience symptoms at 60. In addition, women are more likely to develop symptoms after menopause when they no longer lose iron with menstruation and pregnancy.


What Are the Stages of Hemochromatosis?

There are four stages of hemochromatosis –
- Increased intestinal absorption of dietary iron.
- Decreased expression of the iron-regulatory hormone hepcidin. 
- Altered function of HFE (high FE2+ protein, which is an iron-regulating protein). 
- Tissue injury and fibrogenesis induced by iron.


Does Hemochromatosis Affect Sleep?

Yes, hemochromatosis does affect sleep. Studies show altered iron levels, high iron levels in the body (hemochromatosis), significantly affect individuals causing sleeping disorders. High iron levels in the body may interfere with sleeping and waking up patterns, interrupt the sleep cycle, and cause impairment in cognitive, motor, and socioemotional development.


What Are The Causes Of Death in Hemochromatosis?

There are two significant causes of death associated with hereditary hemochromatosis. People suffering from hemochromatosis often face fatal consequences due to liver damage. Increased iron concentration in the liver increases the risk of liver cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) and can also result in hepatocellular carcinoma (cancer of the liver).


How Does Hemochromatosis Affect the Brain?

Yes, iron overload can cause iron accumulation in various organs, including the brain. Iron accumulation in the brain can cause cognitive impairment and brain dysfunction. Studies show hemochromatosis could also potentially cause neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease and other brain disorders.


When To Suspect Iron Overload?

Consulting a doctor to check for signs and symptoms of hemochromatosis could help diagnose Iron overload. Some symptoms include abdominal pain, amenorrhea, diabetes, decreased sex drive, impotence, bronzed skin, extreme fatigue, severe weight loss, and weakness. Diagnostic tests like serum transferrin saturation, serum ferritin levels, and liver function tests are done to confirm the diagnosis.


How Long Does It Take To Get Rid of Iron Overload?

There is no natural way the body can get rid of excess iron levels. Usually, treatment of iron overload includes removing blood two to four times a year to keep iron levels within normal range. This is usually a lifetime process.


Can Iron Overload Cause Weight Loss?

Yes, weight loss is one of the common symptoms of hemochromatosis. Studies show an association between hemochromatosis and anti-obesity. Increased ferritin levels cause severe fatigue, weakness, and malabsorption of certain nutrients in the body (malnutrition). Proper medications and diet can help prevent weight loss.


Is Hemochromatosis Fatal if Untreated?

Yes, hemochromatosis can prove to be fatal if ignored or left untreated. It can cause multiple organ damage and organ failure. Severe complications of iron overload include –
- Damage to the liver  - liver cirrhosis. 
- Brain damage - cognitive impairment and cognitive decline.
- Heart damage - irreversible cardiomyopathy and cardiogenic shock.
- Pancreatic damage (diabetes and pancreatic failure). 
- Therefore, multiple organ damage can be fatal and cause sudden death
Dr. Potnuru Srinivaasa Sudhakar
Dr. Potnuru Srinivaasa Sudhakar


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