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Hemochromatosis is a hereditary disorder that causes the body to absorb too much iron from food. Hemochromatosis treatment attempts to prevent organ damage by reducing the amount of iron present in the blood. The most common hemochromatosis treatment options include phlebotomy and chelation.
The body needs iron for many functions, including the maintenance of hemoglobin, the molecule that transports oxygen in the blood. As with many other minerals, however, an overload of iron in the body is toxic. Hemochromatosis develops in people who absorb too much iron from the food they eat. Normally, only about 10 percent of iron is absorbed from food, but in people with hemochromatosis, iron absorption increases to as much as 30 percent. This excess iron accumulates in organs such as the pancreas, liver and heart, and it causes toxicity.
Hemochromatosis treatment is simple and effective if it begins before organ toxicity develops. The primary goal of treatment is to remove the amount of iron present in the blood as quickly as possible in order to prevent toxicity. In most cases, this is achieved with phlebotomy, which simply means that blood is drawn from the patient. The process is the same as that of undergoing a blood test, except that a larger volume of blood is taken. About 1.3 pints (600 ml) of blood is removed per treatment.
Depending on the extent of the iron overload, this hemochromatosis treatment might be carried out one to two times a week for as long as 12 months. In some cases, the course of treatment might last even longer. This treatment will continue until the patient’s blood iron level is at the low end of the normal reference range. After this level has been reached, the patient will have blood drawn every few months for the remainder of his or her life. To help maintain normal iron levels, the patient also must avoid taking supplemental iron and vitamin C and must reduce his or her consumption of red meat.
When organ damage already has occurred or is suspected, another aspect of hemochromatosis treatment involves monitoring the organs for signs of disease. A patient with organ damage is at risk of congestive heart failure or other cardiac problems, as well as diabetes, thyroid dysfunction and systemic inflammation. Organ function tests are carried out regularly to monitor organ health and check for early signs of disease.
In cases where treatment of hemochromatosis has not been able to prevent organ damage, the patient is at risk of organ failure or certain types of cancer, as well as organ failure. In the case of the liver, for example, severe damage might result in liver failure. Even if only minor liver damage occurs, the patient is at increased risk of liver cancer in the future. In both cases, liver transplantation often is the only option for treatment.