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HealthInfo Waitaha Canterbury

Iron overload (haemochromatosis)

Mate rino

Iron is a mineral your body needs to make red blood cells, which carry oxygen to your body. It's also needed for your muscles and for healthy hair, skin and nails. Iron also helps with brain functioning.

You can get iron overload, also called haemochromatosis (hee-mo-kro-ma-toe-sis) if too much iron builds up in your body. If it is not detected, the high levels of iron can damage organs such as your liver, pancreas and heart.

Iron overload affects about one in 200 New Zealanders and is more common in New Zealanders of Celtic, Anglo and Northern European descent.

Primary haemochromatosis is the most common form. It's passed down through families. It causes problems affecting iron absorption from the intestine and iron levels in the blood and body tissues. This abnormal gene is very common with one in 12 of us being a carrier.

Secondary (acquired) haemochromatosis is caused by other conditions (such as thalassaemia, or some types of anaemia), or as a result of multiple blood transfusions or long-term alcoholism.

While all age groups can get haemochromatosis, it's most common in men between the ages of 30 and 50 and doesn't tend to produce symptoms in women till they're over 60.

Symptoms of iron overload

The symptoms can include:

If haemochromatosis goes undetected, iron builds up in organs and body tissues. Over time, this can lead to:

Diagnosing iron overload

If you think you may have symptoms, see your general practice team for a blood test. The main test is an iron saturation test or a raised serum ferritin level.

Sometimes you'll need other tests such as:

If your brother or sister has haemochromatosis, see your general practice team to discuss genetic testing. A blood test can confirm if you carry the haemochromatosis genes. You have a one in four risk of having the disease and a 50/50 chance of being a carrier (able to pass the gene on to your own children).

Treating iron overload

The key goal of treatment for haemochromatosis is to remove excess iron from your body and treat any organ damage. The simple way to do this is by giving blood regularly. This is also known as venesection.

To start with, you may need to do this once a week until the iron levels and iron stores in your body are back to normal. This procedure can then be done less often, depending on how much iron is in the foods you eat and how your body responds.

Leukaemia & Blood Cancer New Zealand has a useful record book to help you track your haemoglobin and iron levels.

Self-care for iron overload

If you have haemochromatosis, just changing the foods you eat may not be enough to reduce your iron stores, but you can try the following suggestions:

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Content shared between HealthInfo Canterbury, KidsHealth and Health Navigator NZ as part of a National Health Content Hub collaborative. Last reviewed February 2023.

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Review key: HIHCT-16180