Complications of haemochromatosis  

Complications of haemochromatosis are more likely to occur if the condition is not diagnosed early.

Some of the more serious complications of haemochromatosis are outlined below.

Liver disease

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

But the liver is a relatively tough and resilient organ so you may experience no noticeable symptoms even if your liver has become damaged. If testing does show that this is the case you may be told to avoid drinking alcohol as a precaution.

If significant scarring of the liver (cirrhosis) occurs you may experience symptoms such as:

  • 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)

More severe symptoms of advanced cirrhosis include vomiting blood and passing out bloody stools (poo) – both of which are caused by internal bleeding.

Surgery and medication can be used to relieve the symptoms of cirrhosis but the only way to achieve a complete cure is to have a liver transplant.

However, not everyone is suitable for a liver transplant and the demand for transplanted livers is far higher than the supply, so there is often a long waiting time for a transplant to become available.

Cirrhosis also increases your risk of developing liver cancer. Treatment options for liver cancer include chemotherapy, radiotherapy and removing a section of the liver.

In a small number of cases it may be possible to treat liver cancer with a liver transplant.

Arthritis

In more severe and advanced cases of haemochromatosis, permanent damage, stiffness and inflammation (swelling) can occur in one or more of your joints. This is known as arthritis.

In some cases it may be possible to relieve symptoms of arthritis with medication such as the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) type of painkillers and corticosteroids (steroid medication).

In more severe cases where significant damage has occurred it may be necessary to replace the damaged joint with an artificial one, such as a hip replacement or knee replacement.

Heart failure

If excess iron is allowed to build up in and around the heart it can damage the muscles of the heart (cardiomyopathy).

This can lead to heart failure, which is when your heart has become so damaged it struggles to pump enough blood to meet the demands of the body.

Symptoms of heart failure include:

  • breathlessness (dyspnoea) when you're more active than usual or sometimes when you're resting
  • extreme tiredness and weakness
  • swelling in the legs, ankles and feet (oedema)

Heart failure can be treated using a combination of:

  • lifestyle changes, such as becoming more physically active to strengthen your heart
  • medications such as beta-blockers, which slow your heart rate reducing the strain on your heart

Read more about the treatment of heart failure.


Page last reviewed: 29/07/2014

Next review due: 29/11/2016