(Hereditary Hemochromatosis (HH), Primary Hemachromatosis, Familial Hemochromatosis)
Hemochromatosis is a condition in which the body accumulates excess iron. Primary hemochromatosis, or hereditary hematosis (HH), is an inherited disorder that is a result of faulty genes causing abnormal regulation of iron absorption from the gastrointestinal tract.
Hereditary hemochromatosis is the most common genetic disorder in the US, affecting an estimated 1 of every 200-300 Americans. Secondary hemochromatosis results from treatments or diseases that cause increased amounts of iron to accumulate in the body including dietary iron overload, juvenile hemochromatosis, anemias such as thalassemia, and chronic liver disease.
If diagnosed in a timely fashion, HH is easily and effectively treated, but if untreated, it can lead to severe organ damage. Build-up of iron over years results in excess iron deposited in the cells of the liver, heart, pancreas, joints, and pituitary gland, leading to diseases such as cirrhosis of the liver, liver cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and joint disease.
Hereditary hemochromatosis is caused by a genetic defect, which means it runs in families. Specifically, it is passed down through autosomal recessive inheritance, which means a child who inherits two copies of altered hemochromatosis genes (one from each parent) is highly likely to develop the disease. However, not all people who have two copies of changed hemochromatosis genes develop signs and symptoms of HH.
A risk factor is something that increases your chance of getting a disease or condition.
Risk factors include:
- Family members with hemochromatosis
- Men: Onset between 30-50 years old (Hemochromatosis affects men five times more frequently than women.)
- Women: 50 years old or older (postmenopausal)
- Western European ancestry
- Alcoholism (which can lead to liver disease and secondary hemochromatosis)
Many people have no symptoms when they are diagnosed. But when they occur, symptoms may include:
- Joint pain (most common symptom)
- Fatigue, lack of energy
- Abdominal pain
- Loss of sex drive
- Heart problems
- Damage to the adrenal gland and resulting adrenal insufficiency
If the disease is not detected early and treated, iron may accumulate in body tissues and may eventually lead to serious problems such as:
- Liver disease, including an enlarged liver, cirrhosis, cancer, and liver failure
- Damage to the pancreas, possibly causing diabetes
- Heart abnormalities, such as irregular heart rhythms or congestive heart failure
- Early menopause
- Abnormal pigmentation of the skin, making it look gray or bronze
- Thyroid deficiency
- Damage to the adrenal gland
The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history, and perform a physical exam.
Tests may include:
- Blood tests can determine whether the amount of iron stored in the body is too high.
- Transferrin Saturation Test–determines how much iron is bound to the protein that carries iron in the blood
- Serum Ferritin Test–shows the level of iron in the liver
- Blood tests can determine if hemochromatosis is hereditary.
- There are special blood tests to detect the HFE mutation, which will help confirm the diagnosis.
- If the mutation is not present, hereditary hemochromatosis is not the reason for the iron build-up, and the doctor will look for other causes.
- Tests to examine the liver:
- Liver Biopsy–a tiny piece of liver tissue is removed and examined under a microscope. It will show how much iron has accumulated in the liver and whether the liver is damaged.
- CT Scan of the Abdomen–a type of x-ray that uses a computer to make pictures of the inside of the body
- MRI Scan of the Abdomen–a test that uses magnetic waves to make pictures of the inside of the body
- Ultrasound–a test that uses sound waves to examine the liver
Treatment is simple, inexpensive, and safe.
The first step is to rid the body of excess iron. The process is called phlebotomy, which means removing blood. Depending on how severe the iron overload is, a pint of blood will be taken once or twice a week for several months to a year, and occasionally longer. Once iron levels return to normal, maintenance therapy, which involves giving a pint of blood every 2 to 4 months for life, begins. Some people may need it more often and female patients may need to increase their phlebotomy schedule after menopause.
These include steps to reduce the amount of iron you consume and/or absorb, and to help protect your liver:
Treating Associated Medical Conditions
- Do not eat red meat or raw shellfish.
- Do not take vitamin C supplements.
- Do not take iron supplements.
- Avoid alcohol.
If hemochromatosis has caused you to develop diabetes, liver cirrhosis, or heart failure, you'll need to be treated for these conditions.
Hemochromatosis is often undiagnosed and untreated. It is considered rare and doctors may not think to test for it. The initial symptoms can be diverse and vague and can mimic the symptoms of many other diseases. Also, doctors may focus on the conditions caused by hemochromatosis–arthritis, liver disease, heart disease, or diabetes–rather than on the underlying iron overload. However, if the iron overload caused by hemochromatosis is diagnosed and treated before organ damage has occurred, a person can live a normal, healthy life. Screening for hemochromatosis (testing people who have no symptoms) is not a routine part of medical care or checkups. However, researchers and public health officials do have some suggestions:
- Brothers and sisters of people who have hemochromatosis should have their blood tested to see if they have the disease or are carriers.
- Parents, children, and other close relatives of people who have the disease should consider testing.
- Doctors should consider testing people who have joint disease, severe and continuing fatigue, heart disease, elevated liver enzymes, impotence, and diabetes, because these conditions may result from hemochromatosis.
Talking to a genetic counselor can help you review your family history, determine your specific risks, and review the appropriate testing for hemochromatosis.