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General Medical Questions
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Question : What are the symptoms of too much iron in the body?
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The Trusted Source
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Howard LeWine, M.D.

Howard LeWine, M.D., is chief editor of Internet Publishing, Harvard Health Publications. He is a clinical instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital. Dr. LeWine has been a primary care internist and teacher of internal medicine since 1978.

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August 23, 2012
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A:

Iron can build up in many different body organs. Common organs and symptoms can include:

  • Liver: jaundice, fatigue, itching, swelling of the legs, abnormal bleeding, liver cancer
  • Heart: shortness of breath, leg swelling and fatigue (due to heart failure)
  • Pancreas: diabetes
  • Skin: abnormal color (often a bronze shade)
  • Testes: loss of sex drive and sexual function
  • Joints: joint pains

However, iron buildup usually only happens for specific reasons. In most people, iron accumulates in the body because of a condition called hereditary hemochromatosis. This genetic disease is uncommon, but not rare. As many as five in 1,000 Americans carry the genes for this condition. But only a minority of these people will go on to develop organ damage.

Hemochromatosis is more common in men than in women. And it usually doesn’t cause symptoms until people are in their 50s or 60s.

It’s rarer. But people can accumulate too much iron from other causes, such as frequent blood transfusions. Or by getting massive amounts of iron in their diet. The small amount of iron that is found in food and dietary supplements almost never causes problems in people who don’t carry the genes for hereditary hemochromatosis.

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