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Iron Toxicity


Larry E. Johnson

, MD, PhD, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences

Last full review/revision May 2020| Content last modified May 2020
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Iron (Fe) is a component of hemoglobin, myoglobin, and many enzymes in the body. Heme iron, contained mainly in animal products, is absorbed much better than nonheme iron (eg, in plants and grains), which accounts for > 85% of iron in the average diet. However, absorption of nonheme iron is increased when it is consumed with animal protein and vitamin C.

Iron may accumulate in the body because of

  • Iron therapy given in excessive amounts or for too long

  • Repeated blood transfusions

  • Chronic alcoholism

  • Overdose of iron

Iron overload can also result from an inherited iron overload disease (hemochromatosis), a potentially fatal but easily treatable genetic disorder in which too much iron is absorbed. Hemochromatosis affects > 1 million Americans.

An overdose of iron is toxic, causing vomiting, diarrhea, and damage to the intestine and other organs.

Diagnosis of iron toxicity is similar to that for iron deficiency.

Treatment of iron toxicity often involves deferoxamine, which binds with iron and is excreted in urine.

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