Hemochromatosis is a disorder that interferes with iron metabolism, resulting in too much iron in the body, ultimately leading to liver enlargement and sometimes fatal diseases.
Hemochromatosis may lead to diabetes, skin coloring changes, heart problems, arthritis, testicular atrophy, cirrhosis of the liver, liver cancer, hypopituitarism, chronic abdominal pain, severe fatigue, and an increased risk of certain bacterial infections.
An early diagnosis is crucial to effective treatment. If treatment is started before organs have been affected, diseases such as liver disease, heart disease, arthritis, and diabetes can usually be prevented. Hemochromatosis is classified as primary or secondary.
Primary hemochromatosis can result from a genetic disorder, or by receiving a large number of blood transfusions which boost iron levels. Primary hemochromatosis is the most common genetic disorder in the United States.
Secondary or acquired hemochromatosis can be caused by diseases such as thalassmia or sideroblastic anemia. Occasionally, it may be seen with hemolytic anemia, chronic alcoholism, and other conditions.
Hemochromatosis affects more men than women, and is common in Caucasians of western European descent. The disease often occurs in men between 30 and 50, and in women over 50. Occasionally it develops in patients by age 20. A family history of hemochromatosis increases the risk of developing this condition.
Symptoms of hemochromatosis include joint pain, fatigue, lack of energy, weight loss, generalized darkening of skin color (often referred to as bronzing), abdominal pain, loss of sexual desire, testicular atrophy, loss of body hair, weakness, heart problems and symptoms related to the onset of diabetes.
Some organ damage can be reversed when hemochromatosis is detected early and treated aggressively with phlebotomy.