If haemochromatosis isn't diagnosed and treated early on, iron can build up in the body and cause serious problems.

Some of the main complications associated with the condition are outlined below.

Liver damage

The liver can be very sensitive to the effects of iron, and many people with haemochromatosis will have some degree of liver damage.

This often won't cause any obvious symptoms at first, but can be picked up during tests for haemochromatosis.

If significant scarring of the liver (cirrhosis) occurs, 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 medication can help relieve symptoms of cirrhosis, but the only way to achieve a complete cure is to have a liver transplant.

Diabetes

Diabetes is a condition in which a person's blood sugar level becomes too high. It can occur in people with haemochromatosis if high levels of iron damage the 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, which can lead to an increase in the level of sugar 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, although some people need to take medication to control their blood sugar level.

Read more about how diabetes is treated.

Arthritis

In severe and advanced 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 medication.

But if significant damage has occurred, it may be necessary to replace the affected joint with an artificial one, such as a hip replacement or knee replacement.

Heart problems

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

This can lead to heart failure, which is where the heart has become so damaged it struggles to pump blood around the body properly.

Symptoms of heart failure include:

Heart failure can usually be treated with medication.

Read more about how heart failure is treated.

Page last reviewed: 07/11/2016

Next review due: 07/11/2019