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High iron levels in the blood may be found in association with a disease known as hemochromatosis, where too much iron is absorbed from food, in people who receive multiple blood transfusions or who take iron supplements, and in a number of other diseases, such as porphyria cutanea tarda. Normally, iron is used by the body to manufacture blood cells, and some is stored inside the liver. High iron levels in the blood cause iron overload, and the liver becomes damaged due to excess iron storage. Other parts of the body also begin to store iron, such as the heart, pancreas, joints and glands. In addition to liver disease, problems such as heart abnormalities, diabetes, arthritis and fatigue may result.
At first, when blood levels of iron begin to rise, there may not be any symptoms. Sometimes, non-specific problems, such as feeling tired and the development of painful joints, may be experienced in the early stages of iron toxicity. In the hands, arthritis could occur and, typically, this spares the thumb but affects the next two fingers. On the skin, the effects of high iron levels may cause a bronze appearance. Pain in the abdomen may arise, and this is sometimes located in the region of the liver, just under the ribs on the right hand side.
Women with high iron levels may find that their periods become less frequent or stop completely, and both men and women may notice a loss of libido. Psychological changes could occur and people may be depressed, forgetful or irritable. In cases where there are no noticeable symptoms, high iron levels may be discovered when a blood test shows high ferritin levels, or abnormal liver function. Ferritin is a type of protein which stores iron, and measuring the amount present in blood serum is a way of determining the body's iron levels. Where symptoms of elevated iron levels are not recognized and remain untreated, the risk is that body organs could become irreversibly damaged.
The treatment of high iron levels depends on the cause. Hemochromatosis may be managed by regularly withdrawing blood, so that the body uses up its excess iron to make more blood cells. This treatment is known as venesection.
In other cases, drugs known as chelating agents may be used to remove iron from the blood. If left untreated, serious complications of high iron levels such as heart failure and liver cirrhosis may develop. With treatment, depending on the underlying condition and how far it has progressed, some or all of the effects of high iron levels may be reversed.
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