DEAR DR. DONOHUE: Can you help me find the answer to a dangerous health condition my daughter has? She is 52 years old and has high levels of iron in her system. She was told nothing can be done to lower the levels. It will attack her organs and cause her death. I’ve never heard of such a thing. Do you have any answers? – E.O.

ANSWER:
From the information in your letter, I would say your daughter has hemochromatosis (HE-moe-CROW-muh-TOE-siss). Normally our digestive tracts absorb only the amount of iron we need. Hemochromatosis is an inherited condition where the digestive tract has lost its control over iron. Too much gets into the body.

Excess iron deposits in the liver and eventually leads to liver cirrhosis. It infiltrates the heart and brings about heart failure. In the pancreas, it stops the production of insulin and gives rise to diabetes. In the joints, it causes arthritis. It interferes with the production of male and female hormones. Deposited in the skin, it turns skin color slate gray to a bronze tinge.

All of this is preventable if the illness is discovered in time. Treatment is simple – the periodic removal of blood. Blood is the body’s iron storehouse.

The diagnosis is made in a number of ways. There is a test for the hemochromatosis gene. The blood iron levels can be measured. Sometimes a small piece of liver is removed with a needle for microscopic examination.

If this is her diagnosis, she can be treated. Her children need to be examined. Although hemochromatosis doesn’t have a familiar ring to most ears, it is a common genetic disorder.

DEAR DR. DONOHUE: I have in-laws who believe that every ailment they have is caused by the weather – it’s too hot, too cold, too windy, too rainy. Both are in their late 60s and are overweight. They have frequent headaches, knee pain, leg swelling and more. They will not go to a doctor because they claim weather causes all these problems. I know my in-laws read your column, so perhaps you can clarify the effect weather has on our bodies. – L.P.

ANSWER:
Weather definitely affects the body, but your in-laws are a bit over the top in blaming it for all humankind’s ills.

People with arthritis can often detect changes in barometric pressure via increased joint pain.

Extreme heat leads to heatstroke and extreme cold leads to frostbite and worse, but, aside from those examples, I can’t think of any actual weather-caused illness. Cold weather doesn’t cause colds. Barometric changes don’t cause arthritis. If people have instances of proven weather-caused illness, let me know what they are.

DEAR DR. DONOHUE: I got into asbestos by using it to patch and seal exhaust leaks in my service station. I also was a caretaker of a resort with cottages. The shingled exteriors hadn’t seen paint in 45 years. The owner sent a trailerload of lead-based paint, which I had to use. My equilibrium and balance are way out of whack. I am as clumsy as an ox. I do push-ups and other military exercises. I have trouble writing and have a bad short-term memory. I am only 70 and would like to live a few more years. – E.W.

ANSWER: Asbestos can harm the lungs, the pleura (the lungs’ covering) and the abdominal covering, the peritoneum. It can cause cancers in those places. It can scar the lungs and make people short of breath. It doesn’t usually cause neurological symptoms – brain, spinal cord and nerve troubles, like the ones you have.

Lead poisoning can bring about kidney failure, anemia, constant fatigue, confusion, abdominal pain and nerve damage. Lead stays in the bones for decades. How long ago did you use the paint, and was it only a one-time use? You can be tested for lead poisoning. It’s possible but not highly probable.

DEAR DR. DONOHUE: I don’t recall ever reading in your column about Cushing’s disease. My daughter, 32, was diagnosed with it six months ago. The cause was a tumor in her right adrenal gland. During the several years prior to her diagnosis, many specialists were unable to identify the condition correctly. By the time she was diagnosed, her symptoms were severe, and she was rushed to surgery. After surgery, she was put on prednisone (a form of cortisone). The dose has been reduced, but she cannot get off it. Thank you for any support you can give us. – B.E.

ANSWER:
When people hear the word “cortisone,” their thoughts turn to medicine. It surprises some to learn that we make our own cortisone. Without it, we would die. The adrenal glands make it. They’re a pair of glands, one of which sits above each kidney.

The adrenal glands get the message to produce cortisone from the pituitary gland, a gland that’s located at the base of the brain. Cushing’s disease can come either from a pituitary gland that overproduces the messenger hormone or from a tumor of the adrenal gland. Your daughter had the adrenal gland variety.

The signs of Cushing’s disease come on slowly and are subtle early on. That’s why the diagnosis is so often delayed. However, once the disease has been around – maybe for years – then the signs are obvious – a round, full-moon face; obesity of the trunk with slender arms and legs; high blood pressure; muscle weakness; wide stretch marks; male hair-growth pattern and menstrual disorders in females; easy bruising; acne; and early-onset osteoporosis. Not all patients have all these signs, but enough are usually present to suggest what’s going on. The diagnosis is confirmed by checking hormone levels and by taking scans of the pituitary and adrenal glands.

With removal of her adrenal tumor, your daughter’s illness is cured. She still has to take replacement hormone, because her other adrenal gland was suppressed when the tumor was turning out such huge amounts of hormone. She’ll be off medicine when her remaining gland recovers. That can take from months to years.

Dr. Donohue regrets that he is unable to answer individual letters, but he will incorporate them in his column whenever possible. Readers may write him or request an order form of available health newsletters at P.O. Box 536475, Orlando, FL 32853-6475. Readers may also order health newsletters from www.rbmamall.com


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