Porphyria is a group of diseases in which substances called porphyrins build up, negatively affecting the skin or nervous system. The types that affect the nervous system are also known as acute porphyria, as symptoms are rapid in onset and last a short time. Symptoms of an attack include abdominal pain, chest pain, vomiting, confusion, constipation, fever, high blood pressure, and high heart rate. The attacks usually last for days to weeks. Complications may include paralysis, low blood sodium levels, and seizures. Attacks may be triggered by alcohol, smoking, hormonal changes, fasting, stress, or certain medications. If the skin is affected, blisters or itching may occur with sunlight exposure.
Most types of porphyria are inherited from a person's parents and are due to a mutation in one of the genes that make heme. They may be inherited in an autosomal dominant, autosomal recessive, or X-linked dominant manner. One type, porphyria cutanea tarda, may also be due to increased iron in the liver, hepatitis C, alcohol, or HIV/AIDS. The underlying mechanism results in a decrease in the amount of heme produced and a build-up of substances involved in making heme. Porphyrias may also be classified by whether the liver or the bone marrow is affected. Diagnosis is typically by blood, urine, and stool tests. Genetic testing may be done to determine the specific mutation.
Treatment depends on the type of porphyria and a person's symptoms. The treatment of porphyria of the skin generally involves the avoidance of sunlight. The treatment for acute porphyria may involve giving intravenous heme or a glucose solution. Rarely a liver transplant may be carried out.
The frequency of porphyria is unclear. It is estimated that it affects 1 to 100 per 50,000 people. Rates vary around the world. Porphyria cutanea tarda is believed to be the most common type. The disease was described at least as early as 370 BC by Hippocrates. The underlying mechanism was first described by Felix Hoppe-Seyler in 1871. The name porphyria is from the Greek πορφύρα, porphyra, meaning "purple", a reference to the color of the urine that may occur during an attack.