Hemochromatosis (HE-mo-kro-ma-TO-sis) is a disease in which too much iron builds up in your body (iron overload). Iron is a mineral found in many foods.
Too much iron is toxic to your body. It can poison your organs and cause organ failure. In hemochromatosis, iron can build up in most of your body's organs, but especially in the liver, heart, and pancreas.
Too much iron in the liver can cause an enlarged liver, liver failure, liver cancer, or cirrhosis (sir-RO-sis). Cirrhosis is scarring of the liver, which causes the organ to not work well.
If hemochromatosis isn't treated, it may even cause death.
The two types of hemochromatosis are primary and secondary. Primary hemochromatosis is caused by a defect in the genes that control how much iron you absorb from food. Secondary hemochromatosis usually is the result of another disease or condition that causes iron overload.
Most people who have primary hemochromatosis inherit it from their parents. If you inherit two hemochromatosis genes—one from each parent—you're at risk for iron overload and signs and symptoms of the disease. The two faulty genes cause your body to absorb more iron than usual from the foods you eat.
Hemochromatosis is one of the most common genetic disorders in the United States. However, not everyone who has hemochromatosis has signs or symptoms of the disease.
Estimates of how many people develop signs and symptoms vary greatly. Some estimates suggest that as many as half of all people who have the disease don't have signs or symptoms.
The severity of hemochromatosis also varies. Some people don't have complications, even with high levels of iron in their bodies. Others have severe complications or die from the disease.
Certain factors can affect the severity of the disease. For example, a high intake of vitamin C can make hemochromatosis worse. This is because vitamin C helps your body absorb iron from food.
Alcohol use can worsen liver damage and cirrhosis caused by hemochromatosis. Conditions such as hepatitis also can further damage or weaken the liver.
The outlook for people who have hemochromatosis largely depends on how much organ damage they have at the time of diagnosis. Early diagnosis and treatment of the disease are important.
Treatment may help prevent, delay, or sometimes reverse complications of the disease. Treatment also may lead to better quality of life.
For people who are diagnosed and treated early, a normal lifespan is possible. If left untreated, hemochromatosis can lead to severe organ damage and even death.