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Complications

Haemochromatosis

Haemochromatosis should be diagnosed and treated early on. If it is not, iron can build up in the body and cause serious problems.

Liver damage

The liver can be very sensitive to the effects of iron. Many people with haemochromatosis will have some amount of liver damage.

If you have a lot of scarring on your liver (cirrhosis), you may experience:

  • tiredness and weakness
  • loss of appetite
  • weight loss
  • feeling sick
  • very itchy skin
  • tenderness or pain around the liver
  • yellowing of the eyes and skin (jaundice)

Cirrhosis also increases your risk of developing liver cancer.

Surgery and medicine can help relieve symptoms of cirrhosis. But you will need a liver transplant to cure it completely.

Diabetes

Diabetes is a condition in which your blood glucose level becomes too high. It can happen if you have haemochromatosis and high levels of iron damage in your pancreas.

The pancreas is an organ that produces insulin. Insulin is a hormone that's used to change sugar (glucose) from your diet into energy.

If the pancreas is damaged, it may not produce enough insulin. This can lead to an increase in the level of glucose in the blood.

Symptoms can include:

  • needing to pee more often than usual, particularly at night
  • feeling very thirsty
  • feeling very tired

Lifestyle changes such as eating healthily and exercising regularly can help. Some people may need to take medicine to control their blood sugar level.

Read more about diabetes

Arthritis

In severe cases of haemochromatosis, the high levels of iron can damage the joints. This is known as arthritis.

The main symptoms of arthritis are:

  • joint pain
  • stiff joints
  • swelling (inflammation) in the joints

It may be possible to relieve the symptoms with painkillers and steroid medicine.

If a lot of damage has taken place, you may have to have the joint replaced with an artificial one.

Heart problems

If excess iron builds up in the heart, it can damage the heart muscles (cardiomyopathy).

This can lead to heart failure. The heart becomes so damaged it struggles to pump blood around the body.

Symptoms of heart failure include:

  • shortness of breath
  • extreme tiredness and weakness
  • swelling in the legs, ankles and feet (oedema)

Heart failure can usually be treated with medicine.

Content supplied by the NHS and adapted for Ireland by the HSE.

page last reviewed: 22/12/2020
next review due: 22/12/2023

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This project has received funding from the Government of Ireland’s Sláintecare Integration Fund 2019 under Grant Agreement Number 123.