Iron is a vital nutrient required for various bodily functions. Always bear in mind that iron is naturally present in food such as meats, grains and plants and also available in supplements. The recommended daily allowance (RDA) is based on the age and gender. Women especially of childbearing age require the most iron. On the other hand, the upper limit is 45 mg per day. Excess iron can cause various symptoms that vary depending on whether the toxicity is acute or chronic.
Early symptoms of iron toxicity
Always bear in mind that there are 4 phases of acute iron toxicity that usually occur due to iron overdose. The initial phase occurs once iron is still present in the stomach and circulating in the blood. The symptoms include the following:
- Abdominal pain
The lining of the intestine can end up damaged, resulting to blood in the stool or vomit. Lethargy or irritability can also occur. In case the toxicity is severe, rapid breathing, low blood pressure and rapid heartbeat can occur.
As the body loses fluid and blood, the individual might go into a state of shock where the heart could no longer pump enough amount of blood all over the body. In case shock and coma develop within the initial 6 hours after ingesting iron, there is a risk for death.
Late symptoms of acute iron toxicity
Individuals who survive the initial phase of acute iron toxicity can appear to improve for a while. Take note that this latent phase is the second stage and can occur within 6-48 hours of overdose. Nevertheless, if the iron overdose was moderate or severe, the symptoms can recur as iron causes direct damage to the cells in the body. The symptoms of the third phase of iron toxicity include the following:
- Low blood pressure
In some cases, liver failure develops which results to low blood sugar, extended periods of bleeding and jaundice. It is considered rare for individuals with severe iron toxicity to survive, but some can enter the fourth phase. During this phase, there is intestinal blockage due to scarring that prevents food and fluids from moving via the digestive tract.
Chronic iron toxicity
When it comes to chronic iron toxicity or iron overload, it has various causes such as the following:
- Hereditary hemochromatosis is an inherited condition that causes an abnormal increase in the absorption of iron from food.
- Excessive iron therapy
- Liver disease due to chronic hepatitis C or alcoholism
- Repeated blood transfusions to manage anemia
Once the excess iron accumulates in the body, it can result to liver or heart failure as well as severe diabetes. In some cases, heart failure can lead to swelling of the legs, difficulty exercising, shortness of breath, rapid or erratic heartbeat, fatigue, nausea and heartburn.
When to consult a doctor
Iron toxicity is considered as a medical emergency. If an individual is using an iron supplement and develops unusual indications that are similar to acute or chronic iron toxicity, it is best to seek medical care right away. The doctor should be informed regarding other medications as well as supplements being used by the individual such as vitamin C that can increase the absorption of iron in the body.