Haemochromatosis is the most common genetic disorder in Australia. About 1 in 200 people of northern European origin have the genetic risk for haemochromatosis. People with haemochromatosis absorb too much iron from their diet. The excess iron is stored in the body. Over time this leads to iron overload.
We all know that not enough iron causes health problems but few realise that for some, too much iron is also a problem. If undetected and untreated, the excess iron can cause organ or tissue damage and can potentially result in premature death.
Haemochromatosis tends to be under-diagnosed, partly because its symptoms are similar to those caused by a range of other illnesses.
Both sexes are at risk from haemochromatosis. Women tend to develop the condition later in life because of blood loss during child bearing years. However some women will develop symptoms at an early age.
The good news is that if haemochromatosis is detected before damage occurs, it can be easily treated and is no barrier to a happy and successful life.
Watch this video first
This 2-minute video explains haemochromatosis in simple terms.
When you have finished watching, read on. There is a second, longer video at the end which describes haemochromatosis in more detail and has interviews with some of our members talking about their experiences with haemochromatosis.
Normal absorption of iron
Iron is a vital trace element that we get from our daily diet. The body is finely tuned to take in only as much iron as it needs. Red blood cells contain the protein haemoglobin, which carries oxygen around the body. Iron is needed for the production of haemoglobin.
The human body has no method of excreting excess iron. It controls iron levels by absorbing just the right amount of iron from our food. Any excess is stored in organs and joints in the body.
Effects of iron overload
The body typically stores around one gram or less of iron. However, a person with haemochromatosis absorbs a great deal more iron from their food than is necessary. Iron stores of five grams or more can build up inside the body. Organs such as the liver, heart and pancreas are affected and ultimately damaged. Without treatment, haemochromatosis can cause premature death.
For people with haemochromatosis the excess iron stored in the organs and joints increases gradually over many years. The liver can become enlarged and damaged, leading to serious diseases such as cirrhosis or liver cancer. It can also cause other health problems including heart disease, diabetes, endocrine and sexual dysfunction and arthritis.
Other forms of haemochromatosis
There are other forms of haemochromatosis which are rare but important – Juvenile haemochromatosis and non-HFE haemochromatosis. This website does not have information about these forms of haemochromatosis.
Read about the symptoms associated with haemochromatosis here.
Reviewed 1 February 2017.