November 7th, 2012

The Symptoms of Haemochromatosis (inherited iron overload disorder)


The most common symptoms noticed by people with haemochromatosis (inherited iron overload disorder) are

  • Fatigue, weakness and lethargy
  • Joint pains leading to osteoarthritis *

Other symptoms include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Diabetes
  • Liver disorders; enlarged liver, cirrhosis
  • Sexual disorders; loss of sex drive in both male and female, impotence in men, absent or scanty menstrual periods and early menopause in women
  • Decrease in body hair
  • Discolouration or bronzing of the skin
  • Cardiomyopathy; disease of the heart muscle
  • Neurological/psychiatric disorders; impaired memory, mood swings, severe irritability, depression.

These symptoms, if present, take time to develop.

No two people are alike and symptoms will vary from person to person.

Some people never develop any symptoms at all.

All of the symptoms of haemochromatosis can also be caused by other medical conditions or even just the stresses of modern life.  They develop slowly and people often do not notice what is happening for a long time.  This can make haemochromatosis difficult to diagnose.

Symptoms are caused by high levels of iron stored in the body.  One indicator of the level of iron stored is serum ferritin. If iron stores are high the serum ferritin level will be high, but serum ferritin levels can also be raised by other factors.  The normal range is 20 – 300 micrograms per litre (µg/L) for men and 10 – 200 µg/L for women.

There is strong medical evidence of a potential for significant organ damage when iron stores cause serum ferritin levels above 1,000 µg/L. However some people seem to experience symptoms with levels between 300 and 1,000 µg/L. Higher levels are more likely to be associated with more severe symptoms.

If haemochromatosis is diagnosed and treated before serious iron overload and significant damage occurs, most symptoms will decrease or disappear. However there is evidence that treatment may not alleviate arthritis symptoms.

Other factors that influence haemochromatosis (inherited iron overload disorder)

There are many things that influence how haemochromatosis affects people apart from genetics. Some of these are:

  • Gender: Women are less affected because of physiological blood loss in menstruation and/or childbirth. Estrogens may exert anti-fibrotic effects on the liver and other organs.
  • Age: The older one is, the more time iron has had to accumulate in the body.
  • Regular consumption of iron-rich food or water.
  • Consuming Iron supplements or excessive amounts of iron fortified foods.
  • Alcohol intake.
  • Vitamin C intake.
  • Previous blood donations.
  • Blood loss.
  • Blood transfusions.
  • Coexistence of conditions that increase iron absorption.
  • Dyserythropoietic anaemia, hemolytic anaemias, thalassaemias and Porto-systemic shunts.

Next, read about the diagnosis of haemochromatosis here.

* Help with joint pains and arthritis

Arthritis Australia – Freecall 1800 011 041
Joint pain and arthritis symptoms often have a big impact on the daily lives of people, and although arthritis can be difficult to live with, there are many simple measures that can help anyone manage their symptoms.