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Senior Correspondent

Q. A friend of mine said his doctor told him he has “hemochromatosis.” He didn’t seem worried. I didn’t want to ask, but is it serious?

Every once in a while I get a question that surprises me completely. Hemochromatosis? I thought it sounded like a rare condition in a small subculture. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Hemochromatosis (HE-mo-kro-ma-TO-sis) is an inherited disease that makes your body build up too much iron, a mineral in many of the foods we eat. Hemochromatosis—also known as iron overload disease— is one of the most common genetic disorders in the United States. About 1 million people in the country have the disease.

With early diagnosis and treatment, nearly all the problems of hereditary hemochromatosis can be prevented.

The human body normally absorbs about 10 percent of the iron it ingests. Hemochromatosis causes you to absorb more iron than you need. The body stores the extra iron, particularly in the skin, heart, liver, pancreas, and joints. If you don’t treat hemochromatosis, it can be fatal.

The usual treatment for hemochromatosis is to remove some blood. The process is similar to donating blood. Medicine is used, too, to remove iron from your body. Changes in your diet are often recommended.

Early symptoms of hemochromatosis may include fatigue, joint and abdominal pain, and loss of libido. Later symptoms can include arthritis, liver disease, diabetes, heart abnormalities, and skin discoloration.

Not everyone who has hemochromatosis has symptoms. Some people don't suffer from complications. Others die from the disease.

There are several types of hemochromatosis. Type 1 is the most common form of the disorder. The other types of hemochromatosis are considered rare.

Hemochromatosis is most common in Caucasians of Northern European descent. The disease is uncommon in African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and Native Americans.

Hemochromatosis is more common in men than in women. Older people are more likely to develop the disease.

Men get hemochromatosis between the ages of 40 and 60. Women usually develop symptoms after menopause.

While a defect in your genes causes hemochromatosis, you can get it from another disease that creates an iron overload. The inherited form is called primary hemochromatosis. The form caused by another disease is secondary hemochromatosis.

Risk factors for hemochromatosis include alcoholism and a family history of heart attack, liver disease, diabetes, arthritis, and erectile dysfunction.

If you have hemochromatosis, the amount of iron in your body may be too high even though the level of iron in your blood is normal. To diagnose hemochromatosis, doctors must test to see how much iron is in your body.

If you are diagnosed with hemochromatosis, your doctor may advise you to:

  • Stop taking iron supplements and vitamins with iron in them.
  • Limit your intake of vitamin C, which helps your body absorb iron.
  • Cut down on drinking alcohol because excess iron and alcohol can worsen liver disease.
  • Avoid uncooked fish and shellfish; they can cause bacterial infections in people with hemochromatosis.
  • Avoid iron-rich foods such as liver.

Blood relatives of people with hemochromatosis may be at risk for the disease. Ask your doctor if your relatives should have their iron levels checked.

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