Each year, the Canadian Hemochromatosis Society declares May as a month of awareness to draw attention to hereditary hemochromatosis, a condition that causes the body to absorb and store too much iron from the diet. Hemochromatosis is divided into two types: Primary and Secondary. In primary hemochromatosis (also known as Hereditary Hemochromatosis or HHC), people are genetically predisposed to absorb two to three times the normal amount of iron from food. Secondary hemochromatosis results from another disease or condition leading to iron overload such as thalassemia, blood transfusions, excess iron intake or certain liver diseases.
The excess iron stores in organs and joints where it becomes toxic causing damage and leading to liver and heart disease, diabetes and arthritis. The signs of hemochromatosis are often overlooked as they are non-specific and can mimic other diseases. Early in the disease symptoms can include:
- chronic fatigue or tiredness
- abdominal pain
- aching joints, especially in the knuckle and first joint of the first and second fingers
- loss of sex drive
- impotence in men
- menstrual irregularities for women or early menopause
- discolouration or bronzing of the skin
For primary hemochromatosis the biggest risk factor is genetics. We inherit our genes from our parents, like the witty charm and good looks my sister inherited from our mom. (Two brownie points for me!) If you inherit one defective gene you will not develop the condition. If you inherit two genes there is a chance you will develop hemochromatosis (although many people do not progress to developing the condition). Other risk factors include being of Northern European descent and being male.
As I pointed out earlier, many of the symptoms are non-specific meaning they could be related to another condition. Diagnosis can be confirmed by ordering an Iron series profile which includes:
l serum iron (how much iron is in the blood)
l serum ferritin (the major protein that stores iron in the body)
l transferrin saturation (the protein that carries iron in the blood)
These tests are not part of a normal lab work-up and must be ordered specifically.
The primary treatment for hemochromatosis is to remove the excess iron through a procedure called a phlebotomy, which is like a blood donation but occurring much more frequently. Once the levels of iron are restored to normal, it can occur less often and patients can even donate the blood drawn. Other treatments involve avoiding iron and vitamin c supplements and ensuring vaccinations for hepatitis A & B are up to date.
So, if you experiencing symptoms such as an usual tan in January, speak to you doctor. The earlier you seek help, the better your outcome. Take care of yourselves and each other.