Hemochromatosis Signs & Symptoms
Hemochromatosis occurs when your body absorbs too much iron. One of the most common genetic diseases in the United States, signs of the disease don't usually appear until midlife. Over time, the extra iron in your body builds up in your major organs, primarily the liver, heart and pancreas, causing disease and damage to occur.
The onset of hemochromatosis can be delayed through menstruation (for women) or giving blood. Because of this, men typically develop the disease earlier than women do.
Early signs of hemochromatosis may include fatigue, weakness, weight loss, unexplained abdominal pain, joint pain and/or a fluttering in chest. It's easy to miss these as symptoms of hemochromatosis, because they are similar to symptoms of other diseases. An elevated liver enzyme test can show the presence of iron buildup or of hemochromatosis.
As iron accumulates in the body, symptoms may include missed periods or onset of early menopause for women. Men may experience impotence. Both men and women may experience a decrease in sex drive, arthritis and heart problems like shortness of breath, chest pain and changes in heart rate or rhythm.
Signs of advanced hemochromatosis may include:
- Liver disease, including an enlarged liver, cirrhosis, cancer, and liver failure
- Damage to the pancreas
- High blood sugar and diabetes
- Chronic abdominal pain
- Severe fatigue
- Weakening of the heart muscle
- Heart failure
- Changes in skin color, making it look gray, yellow or bronze (not caused by sun)
The first step for treating advanced hemochromatosis is to get rid of the extra iron in the body. This is typically done via a process called phlebotomy, which involves removing the blood from your body over time. During this process, a pint of blood is taken once or twice a week for a period of time in order to allow iron levels to go back to normal. If a person cannot undergo phlebotomy, they are prescribed medication to remove the extra iron from their body.