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Why You Need to Check for Hemochromatosis and Iron Overload

Apr 25, 2008
Hereditary hemochromatosis is a genetic disease that causes the body to absorb and store too much iron. Hemochromatosis gets its name from "hemo" for blood and "chroma" for colour, referring to the characteristic bronze skin tone caused by iron overload. But skin tone is not a reliable indicator for hemochromatosis as many sufferers do not exhibit the bronze colouration.

Because hemochromatosis causes excess iron storage in several different organs of the body including the liver, pancreas, endocrine glands, heart, skin, joints, and intestinal lining, serious complications can result from this disease. This build-up of iron can lead to hepatic cirrhosis, primary liver cancer, diabetes mellitus, other endocrinopathy, arthropathy, and cardiomyopathy, and with reduced life span.

5% of cirrhosis cases are estimated to be caused by hereditary hemochromatosis. 20% of patients who have cirrhosis due to hereditary hemochromatosis have a chance of developing diabetes. Cirrhosis can also cause a number of complications that can ultimately lead to liver failure, death or an increased risk of developing liver cancer. Liver disease is often worse in hemochromatosis sufferers who also have chronic hepatitis or are alcoholics.

Hemochromatosis can be managed when it detected early but unfortunately, by the time symptoms become evident, severe organ damage has already occurred. As it considered rare, hemochromatosis is often undiagnosed and untreated because doctors may not think to test for it. As symptoms develop only after tissue injury, it is important that diagnosis be made as early as possible.

Many people have no symptoms when they are diagnosed with hemochromatosis and are unaware of their condition. Hemochromatosis symptoms can mimic the symptoms of many other diseases and the initial symptoms of the disease can be diverse and vague.

Symptoms are often exhibited by men between the ages of 30 and 50 and in women over 50, but some patients may develop problems as early as 20. When the body has stored 20 grams or more of iron, symptoms of hemochromatosis become evident. This may take up 4 to 6 decades. As females lose iron through menstrual blood loss, they develop organ damage from iron accumulation 15 to 20 years later than men on average.

However, hereditary hemochromatosis should not be considered a disease of older people or men. Iron build-up is often present and silently causing problems long before symptoms occur, in men, women, adolescents, and in rare cases, children.

While hemochromatosis is usually caused by a HFE defect, juvenile hemochromatosis and neonatal hemochromatosis are two forms of the disease that are not. The juvenile form causes liver and heart disease and severe iron overload in young adults and adolescents between the ages of 15 and 30. The neonatal form causes rapid iron build-up in a baby's liver which can lead to death.

Treatment for hereditary hemochromatosis is routine, but life-long. Treatment is by removing blood (phlebotomy) from the patient in order to lower the level of iron. There is an initial de-ironing phase, where the patients have frequent phlebotomy until the iron stores are depleted. In this initial stage, half a litre of blood may be removed from the body each week. When the iron levels are normal, treatment may only be several times a year. Treatment, if begun in time, will return the patient to a normal life span and reverse most if not all of the symptoms.

With 1 in 10 of the population being a carrier, and 1 in every 200 to 300 being a sufferer, a significant percentage of the population is at risk from hemochromatosis. This worldwide genetic disorder has a high incidence in populations of Northern European origins. It is important that you get tested if you have a family history of the disease. Fortunately with increased awareness this is now happening. It is important to diagnose hemochromatosis early as it can be treated easily.
About the Author
Hemochromatosis -Too much iron is destroying the health of many. Nearly everybody, including physicians, are unaware of this condition. For more Iron Overload Information, visit Dr Chris Whittington's site.
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