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Iron Overload

What is Haemochromatosis?

Haemochromatosis is an inherited condition where iron levels in the body slowly build up over many years.
This build-up of iron, known as iron overload, can cause unpleasant symptoms and if untreated can damage parts of the body such as the liver, joints, pancreas and heart.
Haemochromatosis most often affects people of white northern European background and is particularly common in countries where lots of people have a Celtic background, such as Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

Causes of haemochromatosis

Haemochromatosis is caused by a faulty gene that affects how the body absorbs iron from your diet.
You’re at risk of developing the condition if both of your parents have this faulty gene and you inherit 1 copy from each of them.
You will not get haemochromatosis if you only inherit 1 copy of the faulty gene but there’s a chance you could pass the faulty gene on to any children you have.
And even if you do inherit 2 copies, you will not necessarily get haemochromatosis. It’s not known exactly why this is.

Symptoms of haemochromatosis

Common symptoms include:

Treatments for haemochromatosis

There’s currently no cure for haemochromatosis, but there are treatments that can reduce the amount of iron in the body and reduce the risk of damage.
There are 2 main treatments.

  • phlebotomy – a procedure to remove some of your blood; this may need to be done every week at first and can continue to be needed 2 to 4 times a year for the rest of your life
  • chelation therapy – where you take medicine to reduce the amount of iron in your body; this is only used if it’s not easy to regularly remove some of your blood

You do not need to make any big changes to your diet to control your iron levels if you’re having treatment, but you’ll usually be advised to avoid:

Outlook of haemochromatosis

If the condition is diagnosed and treated early on, haemochromatosis does not affect life expectancy and is unlikely to result in serious problems.
But if it’s not found until it’s more advanced, the high iron levels can damage parts of the body.

This can lead to potentially serious complications, such as:

  • liver problems – including scarring of the liver (cirrhosis) or liver cancer
  • diabetes – where the level of sugar in the blood becomes too high
  • arthritis – pain and swelling in the joints
  • heart failure – where the heart is unable to pump blood around the body properly

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