Iron treatment for adults and children with reduced kidney function

What is the issue?

Anaemia (reduction in the number of circulating red blood cells) often occurs in people who have kidney damage, especially those who need dialysis treatment. Anaemia can cause tiredness, reduce exercise tolerance and increase heart size. A common cause of anaemia is reduced production of a hormone, erythropoietin. Iron deficiency can make anaemia worse, and reduce the response to medications that stimulate erythropoietin production. Iron can be taken orally (by mouth) or injected intravenously (via a vein). Intravenous (IV) iron is given under supervision in hospitals. There is uncertainty about whether IV iron should be used rather than oral iron.

What did we do?

We reviewed 39 studies (3852 participants) which compared IV iron supplements with oral iron in participants with chronic kidney disease.

What did we find?

We found that IV iron may increase blood levels of haemoglobin and iron compared with oral iron. However, IV iron may increase the number of allergic reactions though it may reduce side effects such as constipation, diarrhoea, nausea and vomiting seen with oral iron. We did not find sufficient evidence to determine whether IV iron compared with oral iron improved quality of life, altered overall death rate or death due to heart disease.


Although the results suggest that IV iron compared with oral iron may be more effective in raising iron and haemoglobin levels, we found insufficient data to determine if the benefits of IV iron are justified by improved quality of life or mortality despite the small risk of potentially serious allergic effects in some patients given IV iron.

Authors' conclusions: 

The included studies provide low certainty evidence that IV iron compared with oral iron increases haemoglobin, ferritin and transferrin levels in CKD participants, increases the number of participants who achieve target haemoglobin and reduces ESA requirements. However, there is insufficient evidence to determine whether IV iron compared with oral iron influences death (all causes), cardiovascular death and quality of life though most studies reported only short periods of follow-up. Adverse effects were reported in only 50% of included studies. We therefore suggest that further studies that focus on patient-centred outcomes with longer follow-up periods are needed to determine if the use of IV iron is justified on the basis of reductions in ESA dose and cost, improvements in patient quality of life, and with few serious adverse effects.

Read the full abstract...

The anaemia seen in chronic kidney disease (CKD) may be exacerbated by iron deficiency. Iron can be provided through different routes, with advantages and drawbacks of each route. It remains unclear whether the potential harms and additional costs of intravenous (IV) compared with oral iron are justified. This is an update of a review first published in 2012.


To determine the benefits and harms of IV iron supplementation compared with oral iron for anaemia in adults and children with CKD, including participants on dialysis, with kidney transplants and CKD not requiring dialysis.

Search strategy: 

We searched the Cochrane Kidney and Transplant Register of Studies up to 7 December 2018 through contact with the Information Specialist using search terms relevant to this review. Studies in the Register are identified through searches of CENTRAL, MEDLINE, and EMBASE, conference proceedings, the International Clinical Trials Register (ICTRP) Search Portal, and

Selection criteria: 

We included randomised controlled trials (RCTs) and quasi-RCTs in which IV and oral routes of iron administration were compared in adults and children with CKD.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two authors independently assessed study eligibility, risk of bias, and extracted data. Results were reported as risk ratios (RR) with 95% confidence intervals (CI) for dichotomous outcomes. For continuous outcomes the mean difference (MD) was used or standardised mean difference (SMD) if different scales had been used. Statistical analyses were performed using the random-effects model. Subgroup analysis and univariate meta-regression were performed to investigate between study differences. The certainty of the evidence was assessed using GRADE.

Main results: 

We included 39 studies (3852 participants), 11 of which were added in this update. A low risk of bias was attributed to 20 (51%) studies for sequence generation, 14 (36%) studies for allocation concealment, 22 (56%) studies for attrition bias and 20 (51%) for selective outcome reporting. All studies were at a high risk of performance bias. However, all studies were considered at low risk of detection bias because the primary outcome in all studies was laboratory-based and unlikely to be influenced by lack of blinding.

There is insufficient evidence to suggest that IV iron compared with oral iron makes any difference to death (all causes) (11 studies, 1952 participants: RR 1.12, 95% CI 0.64, 1.94) (absolute effect: 33 participants per 1000 with IV iron versus 31 per 1000 with oral iron), the number of participants needing to start dialysis (4 studies, 743 participants: RR 0.81, 95% CI 0.41, 1.61) or the number needing blood transfusions (5 studies, 774 participants: RR 0.86, 95% CI 0.55, 1.34) (absolute effect: 87 per 1,000 with IV iron versus 101 per 1,000 with oral iron). These analyses were assessed as having low certainty evidence. It is uncertain whether IV iron compared with oral iron reduces cardiovascular death because the certainty of this evidence was very low (3 studies, 206 participants: RR 1.71, 95% CI 0.41 to 7.18). Quality of life was reported in five studies with four reporting no difference between treatment groups and one reporting improvement in participants treated with IV iron.

IV iron compared with oral iron may increase the numbers of participants, who experience allergic reactions or hypotension (15 studies, 2607 participants: RR 3.56, 95% CI 1.88 to 6.74) (absolute harm: 24 per 1000 with IV iron versus 7 per 1000) but may reduce the number of participants with all gastrointestinal adverse effects (14 studies, 1986 participants: RR 0.47, 95% CI 0.33 to 0.66) (absolute benefit: 150 per 1000 with IV iron versus 319 per 1000). These analyses were assessed as having low certainty evidence.

IV iron compared with oral iron may increase the number of participants who achieve target haemoglobin (13 studies, 2206 participants: RR 1.71, 95% CI 1.43 to 2.04) (absolute benefit: 542 participants per 1,000 with IV iron versus 317 per 1000 with oral iron), increased haemoglobin (31 studies, 3373 participants: MD 0.72 g/dL, 95% CI 0.39 to 1.05); ferritin (33 studies, 3389 participants: MD 224.84 µg/L, 95% CI 165.85 to 283.83) and transferrin saturation (27 studies, 3089 participants: MD 7.69%, 95% CI 5.10 to 10.28), and may reduce the dose required of erythropoietin-stimulating agents (ESAs) (11 studies, 522 participants: SMD -0.72, 95% CI -1.12 to -0.31) while making little or no difference to glomerular filtration rate (8 studies, 1052 participants: 0.83 mL/min, 95% CI -0.79 to 2.44). All analyses were assessed as having low certainty evidence. There were moderate to high degrees of heterogeneity in these analyses but in meta-regression, definite reasons for this could not be determined.