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Reviewed October 2006
What is hemochromatosis?
Hemochromatosis is a disorder that causes the body to absorb too much iron from the diet. The excess iron is stored in the body's tissues and organs, particularly the skin, heart, liver, pancreas, and joints. Because humans cannot increase the excretion of iron, excess iron can overload and eventually damage tissues and organs. For this reason, hemochromatosis is also called an iron overload disorder.
Early symptoms of hemochromatosis are nonspecific and may include fatigue, joint pain, abdominal pain, and loss of sex drive. Later signs and symptoms can include arthritis, liver disease, diabetes, heart abnormalities, and skin discoloration. The appearance and progression of symptoms can be affected by environmental and lifestyle factors such as the amount of iron in the diet, alcohol use, and infections.
Hemochromatosis is classified by type depending on the age of onset and other factors such as genetic cause and mode of inheritance. Hemochromatosis type 1, the most common form of the disorder, and type 4 (also called ferroportin disease) are adult-onset disorders. Men with type 1 or type 4 hemochromatosis typically develop symptoms between the ages of 40 and 60, and women usually develop symptoms after menopause.
Type 2 hemochromatosis is a juvenile-onset disorder. Iron accumulation begins early in life, and symptoms may begin to appear in childhood. By age 20, decreased or absent secretion of sex hormones is evident. Females usually begin menstruation in a normal manner, but menses stop after a few years. Males may experience delayed puberty or sex hormone deficiency symptoms such as impotence. If the disorder is untreated, heart disease is evident by age 30. Onset of type 3 hemochromatosis is usually intermediate between types 1 and 2. Symptoms of type 3 hemochromatosis generally begin before age 30.
In rare cases, iron overload begins before birth. These cases are called neonatal hemochromatosis. This type of hemochromatosis progresses rapidly and is characterized by liver damage that is apparent at birth or in the first day of life.
How common is hemochromatosis?
Type 1 hemochromatosis is one of the most common genetic disorders in the United States, affecting about 1 million people. It most often affects people of Northern European descent. The other types of hemochromatosis are considered rare and have been studied in only a small number of families worldwide.
What genes are related to hemochromatosis?
Mutations in the HAMP, HFE, HFE2, SLC40A1, and TFR2 genes cause hemochromatosis.
The HAMP, HFE, HFE2, SLC40A1, and TFR2 genes play an important role in regulating the absorption, transport, and storage of iron. Mutations in these genes impair the control of iron absorption during digestion and alter the distribution of iron to other parts of the body. As a result, iron accumulates in tissues and organs, which can disrupt their normal functions.
Each type of hemochromatosis is caused by mutations in a specific gene. Type 1 hemochromatosis is caused by mutations in the HFE gene, and type 2 hemochromatosis is caused by mutations in either the HFE2 or HAMP gene. Mutations in the TFR2 gene cause type 3 hemochromatosis, and mutations in the SLC40A1 gene cause type 4 hemochromatosis. The cause of neonatal hemochromatosis is unknown.
How do people inherit hemochromatosis?
Hemochromatosis types 1, 2, and 3 are inherited in an autosomal recessive pattern, which means both copies of the gene in each cell have mutations. Most often, the parents of an individual with an autosomal recessive condition each carry one copy of the mutated gene, but do not show signs and symptoms of the condition.
Type 4 hemochromatosis is distinguished by its autosomal dominant inheritance pattern. With this type of inheritance, one copy of the altered gene in each cell is sufficient to cause the disorder. In most cases, an affected person has one parent with the condition.
The inheritance pattern of neonatal hemochromatosis is unknown.
Where can I find information about diagnosis or management of hemochromatosis?
These resources address the diagnosis or management of hemochromatosis and may include treatment providers.
General information about the diagnosis and management of genetic conditions is available in the Handbook. Read more about genetic testing, particularly the difference between clinical tests and research tests.
To locate a healthcare provider, see How can I find a genetics professional in my area? in the Handbook.
Where can I find additional information about hemochromatosis?
You may find the following resources about hemochromatosis helpful. These materials are written for the general public.
You may also be interested in these resources, which are designed for healthcare professionals and researchers.
What other names do people use for hemochromatosis?
What if I still have specific questions about hemochromatosis?
Where can I find general information about genetic conditions?
The Handbook provides basic information about genetics in clear language.
These links provide additional genetics resources that may be useful.
What glossary definitions help with understanding hemochromatosis?
arthritis ; autosomal ; autosomal dominant ; autosomal recessive ; cell ; cirrhosis ; congenital ; deficiency ; diabetes ; digestion ; excretion ; familial ; gene ; giant cell ; hepatitis ; hereditary ; hormone ; impotence ; inheritance ; inheritance pattern ; inherited ; iron ; joint ; juvenile ; menopause ; menses ; menstruation ; metabolism ; mode of inheritance ; neonatal ; pancreas ; progression ; puberty ; recessive ; secretion ; sex hormone ; syndrome
You may find definitions for these and many other terms in the Genetics Home Reference Glossary.
See also Understanding Medical Terminology.
References (20 links)
The resources on this site should not be used as a substitute for professional medical care or advice. Users seeking information about a personal genetic disease, syndrome, or condition should consult with a qualified healthcare professional. See How can I find a genetics professional in my area? in the Handbook.