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Understanding Hemochromatosis

written by: R. Elizabeth C. Kitchen • edited by: Leigh A. Zaykoski • updated: 8/14/2009

This article focuses on hemochromatosis. It talks about the symptoms, causes, diagnosis, treatment and complications.

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    Hemochromatosis is a medical condition in which the body absorbs too much iron from the foods that people consume. The excess iron then becomes stored in the person's heart, liver, pancreas and other organs. If a person has he hereditary form of this disorder, the excess iron stored will damage the organs it is stored in. This can result in life-threatening conditions such as heart problems, cancer and liver disease.

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    Symptoms

    The symptoms of this disorder typically appear in mid-life. The early stage symptoms can include impotence or libido loss, joint pain, irregular menses, decreased thyroid function, chronic fatigue, increased blood sugar levels, abdominal pain and abnormal results on liver function tests. Advanced stage symptoms of hemochromatosis include gray or bronze skin, cirrhosis of the liver, cardiac arrhythmia, liver failure, congestive heart failure, diabetes and liver cancer.

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    Diagnosis and Testing

    Hemochromatosis can be tested for in several different ways and can be difficult to diagnose. Doctors will often perform more than one test to rule out other similar conditions. These tests include blood tests (serum ferritin and serum transferrin saturation), genetic testing and a liver biopsy.

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    Treatment

    This disorder can be treated, but not completely cured. The most effective treatment is regular blood removal to help normalize iron levels. Those undergoing blood removal will have a pint of blood taken at least once a week and sometimes twice a week for a certain amount of time until iron levels can be brought down. This process will take ten to thirty minutes. The patient will sit in a recliner and a needle will be inserted into one of their veins. Their blood will flow through this needle into an attached blood bag. Once the patient's iron levels are normalized they will need to undergo maintenance blood removals throughout the year to keep their hemochromatosis under control. Most patients will need to go four to six times a year for maintenance.

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    Complications

    If a person does not have this disorder under control they face several life-threatening complications. These complications include cirrhosis of the liver, congestive heart failure, liver failure, diabetes, liver cancer and heart arrhythmias. Patients may also experience skin color changes. When excess iron deposits itself into the skin cells, the skin can become gray or bronze in color.

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    Resources

    Mayo Clinic. (2009). Hemochromatosis. Retrieved on July 25, 2009 from Website: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/hemochromatosis/DS00455