How does iron overload increase the risk of infection?

Iron overload, either primary (eg, hereditary hemochromatosis) or secondary (eg, hemolysis/frequent transfusion states), may increase the risk of infections through at least 2 mechanisms: 1. Enhancement of the virulence of the pathogen; and 2. Interference with the body’s normal defense system.1-7

Excess iron has been reported to enhance the growth of numerous organisms, ranging from bacteria (eg, Yersinia, Shigella, Vibrio, Listeria, Legionella, Ehrlichia, many other Gram-negative bacteria, staphylococci, streptococci), mycobacteria, fungi (eg, Aspergillus, Rhizopus/Mucor, Cryptococcus, Pneumocystis), protozoa (eg, Entamaeba, Plasmodium, Toxoplasma) and viruses (HIV, hepatitis B/C, cytomegalovirus, parvovirus). 1-7

In addition to enhancing the growth of many pathogens, excess iron may also inhibit macrophage and lymphocyte function and neutrophil chemotaxis .1,2 Iron loading of macrophages results in the inhibition of interferon-gamma mediated pathways and loss of their ability to kill intracellular pathogens such as Legionella, Listeria and Ehrlichia. 2

Not surprisingly, there are numerous reports in the literature of infections in hemochromatosis, including Listeria monocytogenes meningitis, E. Coli septic shock, Yersinia enterocolitica sepsis/liver abscess, Vibrio vulnificus shock (attributed to ingestion of raw oysters) and mucormycosis causing periorbital cellulitis. 2

Bonus pearl: Did you know that the ascitic fluid of patients with cirrhosis has low transferrin levels compared to those with malignancy, potentially enhancing bacterial growth and increasing their susceptibility to spontaneous bacterial peritonitis? 8

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  1. Weinberg ED, Weinberg GA. The role of iron in infection. Curr Opin Infect Dis 1995;8:164-69.
  2. Khan FA, Fisher MA, Khakoo RA. Association of hemochromatosis with infectious diseases: expanding spectrum. Intern J Infect Dis 2007;11:482-87.
  3. Thwaites PA, Woods ML. Sepsis and siderosis, Yersinia enterocolitica and hereditary haemochromatosis. BMJ Case Rep 2017. Doi:10.11336/bvr-206-218185.
  4. Weinberg ED. Iron loading and disease surveillance. Emerg Infect Dis 1999;5:346-52.
  5. Matthaiou EI, Sass G, Stevens DA, et al. Iron: an essential nutrient for Aspergillus fumigatus and a fulcrum for pathogenesis. Curr Opin Infect Dis 2018;31:506-11.
  6. Alexander J, Limaye AP, Ko CW, et al. Association of hepatic iron overload with invasive fungal infection in liver transplant recipients. Liver Transpl 12:1799-1804.
  7. Schmidt SM. The role of iron in viral infections. Front Biosci (Landmark Ed) 2020;25:893-911.
  8. Romero A, Perez-Aurellao JL, Gonzalez-Villaron L et al. Effect of transferrin concentration on bacterial growth in human ascetic fluid from cirrhotic and neoplastic patients. J Clin Invest 1993;23:699-705.

Disclosures: The listed questions and answers are solely the responsibility of the author and do not necessarily represent the official views of Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Catalyst, Harvard University, its affiliate academic healthcare centers, or its contributors. Although every effort has been made to provide accurate information, the author is far from being perfect. The reader is urged to verify the content of the material with other sources as deemed appropriate and exercise clinical judgment in the interpretation and application of the information provided herein. No responsibility for an adverse outcome or guarantees for a favorable clinical result is assumed by the author. Thank you!

How does iron overload increase the risk of infection?

My patient with erythema multiforme has tested positive for Mycoplasma pneumoniae IgM antibody. Does this mean she has an acute M. pneumonia infection as the cause of her acute illness?

Not necessarily! Although detection of IgM in the serum of patients has proven valuable in diagnosing many infections during their early phase, particularly before IgG is detected, less well known is that false-positive IgM results are not uncommon. 1

More specific to M. pneumoniae IgM, false-positive results have been reported in 10-80% of patients without a clinical diagnosis of acute M. pneumoniae infection 2-4 and 3-15% of blood donors. 4

False-positive IgM results may also occur when testing for other infectious agents, such as the agent of Lyme disease (Borrelia burgdorferi), arboviruses (eg, Zika virus), and herpes simplex, Epstein-Barr, cytomegalovirus, hepatitis A and measles viruses. 1,5  

Reports of false positive IgM results include a patient with congestive heart failure and mildly elevated liver enzymes who had a false-positive hepatitis IgM which led to unnecessary public health investigation and exclusion from an adult day care center. 1 Another patient with sulfa rash had a false-positive measles IgM antibody resulting in callback of >100 patients and healthcare providers for testing!5

There are many potential mechanisms for false-positive IgM results, including polyclonal B cell activation, “vigorous immune response”, cross-reactive antibodies, autoimmune disease, subclinical reactivation of latent viruses, influenza vaccination, overreading weakly reactive results, and persistence of antibodies long after the resolution of the acute disease. 1,2

In our patient, a significant rise in M. pneumoniae IgG between acute and convalescent samples several weeks apart may be more helpful in diagnosing an acute infection accounting for her erythema multiforme.



  1. Landry ML. Immunoglobulin M for acute infection: true or false? Clin Vac Immunol 2016;23:540-5.
  2. Csango PA, Pedersen JE, Hess RD. Comparison of four Mycoplasma pneumoniae IgM-, IgG- and IgA-specific enzyme immunoassays in blood donors and patients. Clin Micro Infect 2004;10:1089-1104.
  3. Thacker WL, Talkington DF. Analysis of complement fixation and commercial enzyme immunoassays for detection of antibodies to Mycoplasma pneumoniae in human serum. Clin Diag Lab Immunol 2000;7:778-80.
  4. Ryuta U, Juri O, Inoue Y, et al. Rapid detection of Mycoplasma pneumoniae IgM antibodies using immunoCard Mycoplasma kit compared with complement fixation (CF) tests and clinical application. European Respiratory Journal 2012; 40: P 2466 (Abstract). 
  5. Woods CR. False-positive results for immunoglobulin M serologic results: explanations and examples. J Ped Infect Dis Soc 2013;2:87-90.

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My patient with erythema multiforme has tested positive for Mycoplasma pneumoniae IgM antibody. Does this mean she has an acute M. pneumonia infection as the cause of her acute illness?