Early symptoms of hemochromatosis (iron overload)
July is Hemochromatosis Screening and Awareness Month, so here’s a little awareness of the early symptoms of hemochromatosis. The first thing to know is that the early signs of this condition – which is characterized by an excessive accumulation of iron in the body – though present since birth (in the case of the hereditary from of the disease, which is also called primary or classical hemochromatosis) usually appear until middle-age (between ages 50-60 in men and after 60 in women), and may resemble those of other conditions.
Early hemochromatosis symptoms:
- Weight loss.
- Abdominal pain.
These general symptoms are more common in women, but that doesn’t mean men are not affected equally or worse. In men, the signs of this disease are frequently a result of organ damage, and include:
- Joint pain.
- Loss of sex drive.
- Heart failure.
It is worth nothing that some estimates indicate that up to 50% of people who have hemochromatosis do not show any symptoms. Lack of symptoms can lead to delayed diagnosis and treatment – if any at all – which can in turn result in severe complications such as:
- Liver problems (cirrhosis, enlarged liver, liver failure, liver cancer).
- Heart problems (arrhythmia, heart failure).
- Joint damage (arthritis).
- Reproductive problems (erectile dysfunction).
- Changes in skin color.
- Underactive pituitary and thyroid glands.
- Damage to adrenal glands.
This is what makes the screening part so important. You may not experience any symptoms but you may still be at risk, especially if you:
- Are a man.
- Are 40 to 60 years old.
- Have two copies of a mutated HFE gene.
- Have a parent or sibling with hemochromatosis.
- Have a family history of alcoholism, heart attack, diabetes, liver disease, arthritis, or impotence.
- Are Caucasian of Northern European descent.
People who have first-degree relatives with hemochromatosis are recommended to undergo genetic testing to check for the condition. Doctors – including hematologists, cardiologists, endocrinologists, hepatologists, gastroenterologists, and rheumatologists – can also make a diagnosis with several other tests, for instance:
- Blood tests.
- Liver function tests.
- Liver biopsy.
- Superconducting Quantum Interference Device.
In addition to the hereditary form of the disease, the early symptoms of hemochromatosis may be caused by another condition that results in too much iron being absorbed by the body. This is called secondary hemochromatosis. Thus, iron overload may be detected while checking for such conditions as chronic hepatitis C infection, alcoholic liver disease, or non-alcoholic steatohepatitis, as well as others like arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, or erectile dysfunction.
Treatment for hemochromatosis
A procedure in which about a pint of blood is removed from the body of the patient through a needle inserted in the arm and into a container. This is repeated one or two times a week until iron levels are brought back to normal. After that, maintenance treatment may be needed every 2 to 4 months for the rest of the patient’s natural existence.
This is an alternative for people who are not eligible for phlebotomy because they have anemia or heart problems. In this procedure, a medicine is injected or taken by mouth to remove iron through urine or stool.
People who have hemochromatosis can balance ongoing treatment with a normal life. They need only make sure to monitor their iron blood levels with regular check-ups. Moreover, they can exercise as much as they like as means of striving to remain healthy in other areas.