Elevated iron levels can occur because of overdoses of iron supplements or if an underlying disease causes the body to take up too much iron. Symptoms of iron overload affect many parts of the body. Common symptoms are fatigue, changes in skin color and black stools. Even if there are no symptoms, a doctor can identify elevated iron levels through blood tests. Health experts recommend that a healthy adult should have an iron intake of no more than about 45 milligrams a day.
Overdosing on iron supplements can cause problems with the gastrointestinal system, nervous system, circulatory system, respiratory system and skin. Diarrhea, black stools or stools with blood in them can indicate high iron levels. The patient might feel nauseous, vomit blood or taste metal.
The skin of the person can look pale, with a blue tint to lips and fingernails. His or her skin might also be flushed. He or she might have a weak pulse, might have low blood pressure and can go into shock. Nervous system symptoms include a dizzy feeling, lethargy and fever. The person might also go into convulsions or even into a coma.
People who overdose on iron tablets might show no symptoms. The symptoms might even disappear and then return. If after 48 hours there are no symptoms present, the person might recover well. Sometimes the overdose proves lethal, so prompt medical attention is necessary. Treatment might involve stomach pumping or endoscopic techniques to remove any pills still in the stomach.
Several genetic diseases affect the capacity of the body to selectively absorb iron. One important cause is the disease known as hemachromatosis, which is present in about 0.4 percent of people who have Northern European ancestry. Some people who have hemachromatosis do not know they have it and find out only when the excess iron stored in the body results in damaged organs. People who have blood disorders and need to have regular blood transfusions might also suffer from elevated iron levels.
When iron ingestion rises above the recommended limit of 45 milligrams per day, it can collect in susceptible people and can have greater effects on health over time. The first indications of elevated iron levels are weakness, tiredness and pain in the joints and abdomen. The person might also lose weight. After the initial symptoms, if the iron overload continues, the organs begin to be affected.
Women might lose their periods and feel less interested in sex. Men can lose interest in sex or become impotent. Hair can fall out, and the person might find it difficult to breathe properly. More severe symptoms include chronic abdominal pain, severe tiredness and arthritis.
A person who has iron overload might also develop diabetes and high blood sugar. His or her skin can become a bronze or gray color. The person's heartbeat might be irregular, and his or her heart might not work efficiently. He or she might also develop cirrhosis of the liver or liver cancer.