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Hemochromatosis: Iron Storage Disease

What Is Hemochromatosis?

Photo: A man and woman walking on the beach.Hemochromatosis occurs when the body absorbs too much iron from foods (and other sources such as vitamins containing iron). This disease causes extra iron to gradually build up in the body's tissues and organs, a term called iron overload. If this iron buildup is untreated, it can, over many years, damage the body's organs.

What Are The Causes?

Although hemochromatosis can have other causes, in the United States the disease is usually caused by a genetic disorder. A person who inherits the defective gene from both parents may develop hemochromatosis. The genetic defect of hemochromatosis is present at birth, but symptoms rarely appear before adulthood. Because one inherits genes from his or her parents, this type of the disease is also called hereditary hemochromatosis.

What Are The Symptoms?

Early indications of hemochromatosis include the following symptoms:

  • Fatigue (feeling very tired)
  • Weakness
  • Weight loss
  • Abdominal pain
  • Joint pain

Because these symptoms also occur with other diseases, hemochromatosis can be difficult to diagnose in its early stages.

How Is It Detected?

Photo: A manIf your doctor suspects you have iron overload associated with hemochromatosis, there are two blood tests – serum transferrin saturation and ferritin levels – which may be used to help make the diagnosis. The tests measure how much iron is in the body. You can have these tests done in your doctor's office.

If hemochromatosis is detected early, treatment can slow its progress and prevent serious problems. However, if the disease is not detected and treated early, it can cause more serious problems. These problems include arthritis, heart problems, and liver problems (such as cirrhosis and liver cancer).

If you think you have symptoms like those of hemochromatosis or if you have a close blood relative who has hemochromatosis, you should ask your health care provider to check the amount of iron in your blood.

What Is The Treatment?

Treatment consists of periodically taking blood from the arm, much like giving blood. The treatment is safe and effective. Patients can expect a normal life span if they start treatment before organ damage has begun.

Most people with hemochromatosis should be checked at least once a year to be sure that their iron level is within the normal range. If the iron level is too high, phlebotomy treatments are needed to keep extra iron from building up in the body.

Tips for Living Well with Hemochromatosis

There is much you can do to make sure your life is as normal and healthy as possible.

  • Check-ups: Have the amount of iron in your blood checked regularly.
  • Phlebotomy: Make sure to get phlebotomies when you need them. Phlebotomy is the best treatment for hemochromatosis. Hemochromatosis cannot be treated by changing your diet alone.
  • Iron pills: Don't take iron pills, supplements, or multivitamin supplements that have iron in them. Eating foods that contain iron is fine.
  • Vitamin C: Vitamin C increases the amount of iron your body absorbs. Avoid taking pills with more than 500 mg of vitamin C per day. Eating foods with vitamin C (such as oranges) is fine.
  • Food: Don't eat raw fish or raw shellfish. Cooking destroys germs harmful to people with hemochromatosis. People with hemochromatosis are at greater risk for bacteremia, a bacterial infection of the blood stream.
  • Alcohol: If you choose to drink alcohol, drink very little. Women should have no more than one drink a day. Men should have no more than two drinks a day. However, if you have liver damage, do not drink any alcohol.
  • Exercise: You can exercise as much as you want. The CDC and the American College of Sports Medicine offers the following physical activity recommendations:
    • Adults should engage in moderate-intensity physical activities (indicated by some increase in breathing or heart rate) for at least 30 minutes on preferably all days of the week.

More Information

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  • Page last reviewed: July 5, 2011
  • Page last updated: July 5, 2011
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