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Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center (GARD)

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Wilson disease

Other Names for this Disease
  • Hepatolenticular degeneration
  • WD
  • WND
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Your Question

I have been diagnosed with Wilson disease. What are the long-term effects of this disease? Will I need to be on medication for the rest of my life? Does Wilson disease count as a disability because an affected person has it all of their life? What are the chances that my children will have Wilson disease?

Our Answer

We have identified the following information that we hope you find helpful. If you still have questions, please contact us.

What is Wilson disease?

Wilson disease is a rare inherited disorder in which excessive amounts of copper accumulate in the body.  The buildup of copper leads to damage in the kidneys, brain, and eyes.  Although copper accumulation begins at birth, symptoms of the disorder typically appear later in life.[1] Wilson disease is caused by a mutation of the ATP7B gene. People who have Wilson disease cannot release copper from the liver at a normal rate, causing a buildup of copper in the body.[2] This condition is inherited in an autosomal recessive manner. Treatment includes removing excess copper from the body, reducing intake of foods that are rich in copper and treating any liver or central nervous system damage.[3] Lifelong treatment is required.[2]
Last updated: 2/19/2010

What are the symptoms of Wilson disease?

The most characteristic symptom of Wilson disease is the Kayser-Fleisher ring – a rusty brown ring around the cornea of the eye that can best be viewed using an ophthalmologist’s slit lamp. The primary consequence for most of those with Wilson disease is liver disease, appearing in late childhood or early adolescence as acute hepatitis, liver failure, or progressive chronic liver disease in the form of chronic active hepatitis or cirrhosis of the liver.  In others, the first symptoms occur later in adulthood and most commonly include slurred speech, difficulty swallowing, and drooling.  Other symptoms may include tremor of the head, arms, or legs; impaired muscle tone, and sustained muscle contractions that produce abnormal postures, twisting, and repetitive movements; and slowness of movements.  Individuals may also experience clumsiness and loss of fine motor skills.  A third of those with Wilson disease will also experience psychiatric symptoms such as an abrupt personality change, bizarre and inappropriate behavior, depression accompanied by suicidal thoughts, neurosis, or psychosis.[1]

More information about the symptoms associated with Wilson disease can be found through the web pages of the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse and the National Human Genome Research Institute.

Last updated: 2/19/2010

What are the long-term effects of Wilson disease?

If the disorder is detected early and treated appropriately, an individual with Wilson disease can usually enjoy normal health and a normal lifespan. If not treated, Wilson disease can cause severe brain damage, liver failure, and death.[1] 
Last updated: 2/19/2010

Do individuals with Wilson disease need to take medication throughout their lives?

Wilson disease requires lifelong treatment, generally using drugs to reduce and control the amount of copper in the body.[1][2]
Last updated: 2/19/2010

If I have Wilson disease, what are the chances that my children will have it too?

Wilson disease is inherited in an autosomal recessive pattern, which means both copies of the gene in each cell have mutations. The parents of an individual with an autosomal recessive condition each carry one copy of the mutated gene, but they typically do not show signs and symptoms of the condition.[4]

Offspring of an affected individual are obligate carriers. Given the carrier rate of one in 90 in the general population, the likelihood that an affected individual would have an affected child is one in 180. Because the risk for an affected individual of having an affected child is low, testing of serum ceruloplasmin concentration after one year of age should be an adequate screening in young children with a parent with Wilson disease, except in populations with a high incidence of Wilson disease or a high incidence of consanguinity, in which molecular testing may be useful.[5]

Individuals interested in learning more about the genetics of Wilson disease or their risk of developing or transmitting this condition should consult with a genetics professional.

Last updated: 2/19/2010

How can I find a genetics professional in my area?

Genetics clinics are a source of information for individuals and families regarding genetic conditions, treatment, inheritance, and genetic risks to other family members. More information about genetic consultations is available from Genetics Home Reference. To find a genetics clinic, we recommend that you contact your primary healthcare provider for a referral.

The following online resources can help you find a genetics professional in your community:  

  • GeneTests has a searchable directory of US and international genetics and prenatal diagnosis clinics.
  • The National Society of Genetic Counselors provides a searchable directory of US and international genetic counseling services.
  • The American College of Medical Genetics has a searchable database of US genetics clinics.  
  • The American Society of Human Genetics maintains a database of its members, which includes individuals who live outside of the United States. Visit the link to obtain a list of the geneticists in your country, some of whom may be researchers that do not provide medical care.
Last updated: 12/13/2012

Does Wilson disease count as a disability?

Whether a condition is considered to be a disability depends on many factors. For instance, does the condition cause symptoms which alter an individual's ability to carry out normal daily activities or work commitments?

If Wilson disease is detected early and treated appropriately, an individual with Wilson disease can usually enjoy normal health and a normal lifespan.[1] Individuals who do not receive treatment in a timely manner may have long-term health issues which may qualify them for disability. To learn more about how individuals qualify for disability, we recommend that you visit the following web pages. provides quick and easy access to comprehensive information about disability programs, services, laws and benefits. You can search for medical resources by state at the following link. Select your state from the drop down menu (located on the left hand side of the page) then select “Health.”

Additional information about disability benefits can be found through the following Social Security web site.

Information about financial assistance is available through the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI).

Last updated: 2/19/2010