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HealthInfo Canterbury

Iron overload (haemochromatosis)

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

Iron overload, also called haemochromatosis (hee-mo-kro-ma-toe-sis), occurs when too much iron builds up in the body. If it's not detected, the high levels of iron can damage organs such as the liver, pancreas and heart.

Iron overload affects about 1 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 controlling iron absorption from your 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 occurs due to other conditions (such as thalassaemia, or some anaemias), or as a result of multiple blood transfusions or long-term alcoholism.

While haemochromatosis can occur in all age groups, it is usually detected in men between the ages of 30 and 50 years and doesn't tend to produce symptoms in women till they're over 60 years old. The symptoms can include:

Diagnosing iron overload

If someone in your family has iron overload or you think you may have symptoms, see your doctor for a blood test. The main test is an iron saturation test or a raised serum ferritin level. A blood test can confirm if you carry the haemochromatosis genes.

Sometimes other tests are needed such as:

If your brother or sister has haemochromatosis, see your doctor to discuss genetic testing. 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 the 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 the 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.

A useful record book is available from Leukaemia & Blood Cancer New Zealand to help you track your haemoglobin and iron levels.

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

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 May 2020.

Page reference: 52886

Review key: HIHCT-16180