The body needs to make red blood cells, among other functions. Most people get enough iron through their diet, but some people require iron supplements to achieve adequate levels of iron. Too little iron stored in the body may have serious consequences; too much iron in the body can also be dangerous and cause damage to organs, especially the liver.
Your doctor may prescribe iron supplements if you have anemia, a condition in which there are inadequate numbers of red blood cells in the body. Anemia can cause serious problems, including fatigue, decreased immune function, and poor performance at work or school. People who may need iron supplementation include pregnant women, people who have lost blood, people with kidney failure, and people with diseases which cause them to absorb inadequate amounts of iron through the gastrointestinal tract.
The balance of iron is tightly regulated in the body. Iron is absorbed through the gastrointestinal tract, ideally at the same rate at which it is lost. Unfortunately, the body does not have a mechanism to get rid of excess iron; this iron accumulates in organs and tissues, especially the liver, and may cause damage.
Liver damage is a serious side effect of iron overload in the body. Iron can damage the liver cells and cause cell death. The liver may become scarred, producing a condition called cirrhosis, which may be fatal. Iron may damage the DNA of the liver cells, and increase the risk of developing liver cancer.
The Food and Drug Administration recommends that people consume no more than 45mg of iron per day. Taking in more than 45mg of iron per day for a long period of time may cause iron to build up in the body and cause chronic problems.
Taking in large amount of iron over a short period of time, about 50 to 100 times the regular recommended dose, can be fatal. This is a serious problem in young children who accidentally eat a large number of iron pills. As little as 200mg of iron can be fatal to a small child. Serious gastrointestinal and metabolic problems may result in the early stages of the overdose, and death may occur; later, liver damage may result.
Chronic liver damage can occur when excess iron accumulates over a longer period of time. Although liver damage from iron overload primarily affects people who receive multiple blood transfusions, people who consume large amounts of iron supplements over a long period of time can develop liver damage. Signs and symptoms of liver damage include a yellowing of the skin, called jaundice, abdominal pain, especially in the upper right part of the abdomen, abdominal swelling, fatigue and itching.
People with hemochromatosis are at special risk of developing iron overload, even from the ingestion of a normal amount of iron. These people possess a genetic defect which causes them to absorb too much iron; this iron accumulates in the organs, especially the liver, and causes damage. People with hemochromatosis must carefully regulate their iron intake; they can also donate blood regularly to decrease the extra iron stored in their bodies.
Only take iron supplements if your doctor recommends them. Your doctor will carefully monitor the effects of iron supplementation with blood tests, and the treatment will be stopped when the body has enough iron to produce an adequate number of red blood cells. People who do not specifically require iron supplementation should not take iron pills.