Doctors can treat hereditary hemochromatosis safely and effectively by removing blood from your body (phlebotomy) on a regular basis, just as if you were donating blood. Some blood collection centers in the United States have obtained permission from the Food and Drug Administration to collect this blood and use it for transfusion.
The goal of phlebotomy is to reduce your iron levels to normal. The amount of blood removed and how often it's removed depend on your age, your overall health and the severity of iron overload. It may take a year or longer to reduce the iron in your body to normal levels.
- Initial treatment schedule. Initially, you may have a pint (about 470 milliliters) of blood taken once or twice a week — usually in a hospital or your doctor's office. While you recline in a chair, a needle is inserted into a vein in your arm. The blood flows from the needle into a tube that's attached to a blood bag.
- Maintenance treatment schedule. Once your iron levels have returned to normal, blood can be removed less often, typically every two to four months. Some people may maintain normal iron levels without having any blood taken, and some may need to have blood removed monthly. The schedule depends on how rapidly iron accumulates in your body.
Treating hereditary hemochromatosis can help alleviate symptoms of tiredness, abdominal pain and skin darkening. It can help prevent serious complications such as liver disease, heart disease and diabetes. If you already have one of these conditions, phlebotomy may slow the progression of the disease, and in some cases even reverse it.
Phlebotomy will not reverse cirrhosis or improve joint pain.
If you have cirrhosis, your doctor may recommend periodic screening for liver cancer. This usually involves an abdominal ultrasound and a blood test.
Chelation for those who can't undergo blood removal
If you can't undergo phlebotomy, because you have anemia, for example, or heart complications, your doctor may recommend a medication to remove excess iron. The medication can be injected into your body, or it can be taken as a pill. The medication binds excess iron, allowing your body to expel iron through your urine or stool in a process that's called chelation.