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Iron overload is a medical problem where there is too much iron in the body, leading to organ damage and eventual failure if the excess iron is not eliminated. It can be hereditary or acquired, and there are a number of treatment options available to help patients with iron overload, depending on the underlying cause. One of the simplest is blood donation; removing blood helps eliminate excess iron, and the blood can usually be used in blood donations as long as the patient is otherwise healthy, allowing patients to perform a public service while getting treatment for their condition.
Hemochromatosis is the most common example of an inherited iron overload disorder, and it comes in several forms. Certain hemoglobinopathies can also cause this condition, as changes to the structure of hemoglobin may result in excessive storage of iron or the inability to eliminate it. Sometimes people have disorders of iron metabolism, or simply get too much dietary iron and develop overload as a result.
Patients with iron overload can experience symptoms like fatigue, nausea, darkened skin, liver and kidney failure, and arthritis. Blood testing will reveal high levels of iron in the blood and depositions of iron may also be seen in the internal organs if biopsy samples are taken. Signs of disordered organ function, such as elevated liver enzymes, are also typically present in cases of iron overload disorder. The patient may also be nauseous and can experience decreased appetite and other issues.
If bloodletting is not an option, another choice may be chelation. In chelation, a drug known to bind to iron is administered. While the body cannot express iron, it can eliminate the drug, taking the bound iron with it. Both chelation and bloodletting may be needed on a regular basis for life in patients with congenital iron overload disorders, as their bodies will keep building up excess iron, even with dietary controls.
Certain people can be at increased risk for such disorders. This includes anyone with a family history of iron overload, as well as people with a genetic predisposition to hemoglobinopathies. These patients may be monitored more closely for signs of disease with the goal of identifying and addressing dangerous buildups of iron as early as possible.
If a patient was simply getting too much iron, or has a temporary metabolic problem, changing dietary habits and addressing medical problems can usually resolve the iron overload disorder once the excess iron has been removed to stabilize the patient.