Secondary hemochromatosis (secondary iron overload) is a disorder caused by the body absorbing too much iron as it digests food. The excess iron is stored in several of the body’s organs and can eventually cause cancer, diabetes, irregular heartbeats (arrhythmia), and permanent scarring of the liver (cirrhosis). There are several types of hemochromatosis, and the more common types are genetic. Secondary hemochromatosis is not genetic but instead is caused by other medical conditions such as liver disease, multiple or frequent blood transfusions (usually as a treatment for another condition), kidney dialysis, thalassemia, and anemia.
Common symptoms include joint pain, fatigue, weakness, bronzed skin, diabetes, or heart failure. In men, hemochromatosis may cause loss of sex drive (low libido) and impotence. Risk factors for developing secondary hemochromatosis include a family history of diabetes, heart disease, and liver disease. Alcoholism and taking some dietary supplements (particularly high levels of vitamin C and/or iron) may also increase your risk.
For many people, the only symptom is a high level of iron in the blood, which can make forming a diagnosis challenging. Two types of blood tests may be done to diagnose the disorder. To confirm the diagnosis, other tests may include an MRI and liver biopsy. Treatments are available to manage the iron build-up. Research is ongoing, so talk with your doctor(s) about the most current treatment options. Support groups are also a good source of information and can connect you with others living with secondary hemochromatosis.