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Last Update: July 10, 2023.

Continuing Education Activity

Iron is a mineral essential to the human body. It is administered for the treatment of iron deficiency. It is available in many formulations that belong to the class of iron products. This activity outlines the mechanism of action, indications, contraindications, relevant monitoring, and risk of toxicity. Knowledge of this topic is essential for members of an interprofessional team to provide proper care to patients with iron deficiency and related conditions.


  • Identify the mechanism of action of iron therapy.
  • Describe the adverse effects of iron therapy.
  • Review the appropriate monitoring for toxicity of iron therapy.
  • Discuss interprofessional team strategies for improving care coordination and communication to advance iron therapy successfully and safely and improve outcomes.
Access free multiple choice questions on this topic.


Iron is a mineral necessary for human life. It plays an important role in DNA synthesis and many other metabolic processes. It is also an essential component of heme, within hemoglobin, the protein responsible for transporting oxygen throughout the body. Hemoglobin is present within erythrocytes (red blood cells) produced by hematopoietic stem cells of the bone marrow. The kidneys provide the stimulus for producing red blood cells within the marrow via a hormone called erythropoietin. Erythropoietin travels from the kidneys to the bone marrow, where it exerts its action. In addition to providing a basal amount of erythropoietin, the kidneys will increase synthesis and secretion in response to hypoxia. 

Individuals who have a deficiency of iron have a decrease in their body’s ability to transport and subsequently utilize oxygen from the air they breathe. Symptoms may manifest in various ways, including but not limited to fatigue, pallor, tachycardia, and exercise intolerance. Though iron deficiency can occur with or without anemia, it is, in fact, the most common cause of anemia worldwide, representing a significant public health challenge.[1] Those most at risk are patients with an increased physiologic demand for iron, e.g., young children, adolescents, pregnant women, and those with impaired absorption, e.g., those with inflammatory bowel disease or who have undergone certain gastrointestinal surgical procedures.[2]

Evaluation of iron status is best performed by assessing serum ferritin and transferrin saturation. Serum ferritin represents the level of iron stores in the body. Serum ferritin value less than 30 ng/mL is generally considered diagnostic of iron deficiency; less than 10 to 15 ng/mL is 99 percent specific for iron deficiency anemia. The caveat or ferritin is also an acute-phase reactant, and levels may be affected by inflammatory processes. Transferrin saturation is another metric used to assess iron status, representing the iron level readily available for transport to tissues. Transferrin saturation of under 20% generally indicates iron deficiency. Iron deficiency may also manifest on a complete blood count (CBC) as a microcytic, hypochromic anemia; however, iron status should not be based solely on red blood cell characteristics as hematopoiesis is often unaffected in the early stages of deficiency.

The implementation of iron therapy can be initiated based on several different guidelines depending on etiology. The European consensus on the diagnosis and management of iron deficiency and anemia in inflammatory bowel disease (ECCO) suggests iron supplementation for patients with ferritin under 30 ng/mL or less than 100 ng/mL if transferrin saturation is below 20% for those with iron deficiency due to inflammatory bowel disease. Similarly, the Kidney Disease: Improving Global Outcomes (KDIGO) guidelines use serum ferritin below 100 ng/mL and transferrin saturation under 20% to indicate therapy in patients with renal disease. The European Society of Cardiology uses ferritin less than 100 ng/mL or 100 to 299 ng/mL with transferrin saturation below 20% in patients with heart failure.[1] 

Most oral iron formulations are considered to be dietary supplements. As such, they are not subject to the same set of regulations used by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to evaluate traditional drug products. Parenteral, i.e., intravenous iron therapy, is approved by the FDA to treat iron deficiency anemia for patients who are intolerant to oral iron or have demonstrated an inadequate response and for patients with chronic kidney disease. It should be noted that further guidelines and restrictions vary by individual brand of parenteral iron.

Mechanism of Action

Intravenous iron – Iron therapy in intravenous form consists of an iron-hydroxide core encased in a carbohydrate ligand. After administration, these complexes are taken up by macrophages via endocytosis. Once inside macrophages, they can either be expelled into the serum as ferrous iron (Fe2+) or incorporated into ferritin for storage. The iron expelled from the macrophage is quickly oxidized to ferric iron (Fe3+) and bound to transferrin for transport to target sites, including the bone marrow for production of hemoglobin and the liver for storage.[3]

Oral iron – Iron administered orally travels to the duodenum, where it is taken up into enterocyte cells along the brush border by the divalent metal-ion transporter 1 (DMT1). From there, it can either be incorporated into ferritin for storage or expelled into the serum by the ferroportin 1 transporter on the basolateral membrane. This transporter is bound to multicopper oxidases that oxidize ferrous iron (Fe2+) into ferric iron (Fe3+) that can bind to transferrin for transport to the bone marrow for hemoglobin synthesis or to the liver for storage.[4]

Of note, these processes of active absorption can only absorb a set amount of iron at a given time. Iron consumed exceeding these limits is absorbed passively into the blood via the paracellular route.[4][5]


The administration of iron supplementation can be both orally and parenterally. Oral iron therapy is the preferred route as it tends to be both affordable and effective in mild to moderate deficiency cases. In iron deficiency anemia, 100 to 200 mg elemental iron is given daily divided into two doses to adult patients. For severe iron deficiency or when oral treatment fails (or is intolerable), or in patients with impaired intestinal absorption, intravenous therapy can be the administration option. Both oral and intravenous iron is available in a variety of formulations.[6]

Adverse Effects

Oral iron – the most common side effects of oral iron administration are gastrointestinal upset, which can include nausea, diarrhea, cramping, and more commonly, constipation. More serious are gastrointestinal hemorrhage and ulceration, as well as hypersensitivity reactions.[7]

Intravenous iron – the most common side effect of intravenous iron administration is hypotension. Other side effects include minor infusion reactions, typically presenting as arthralgias/myalgias, headache, nausea, and flushing.[8]


Hypersensitivity and hemochromatosis are the main contraindications. Contraindications to intravenous iron infusion include the first trimester of pregnancy. Use caution in patients with peptic ulcer disease, inflammatory bowel disease, and patients receiving regular blood transfusions.[9]


The hemoglobin level should increase by 2 g/dL within 4 to 8 weeks of initiating therapy. Ferritin should be rechecked 8 to 12 weeks after completion of treatment as normalization of ferritin levels and transferrin saturation is the target goal. For patients suffering from severe deficiency, it may take up to 3 months for hemoglobin to return to the normal range.[10]


Both oral and intravenous forms of iron have the potential to cause oxidative stress and damage. Iron-induced coagulopathy, liver damage, kidney failure, and cardiomyopathy may occur upon reaching toxic levels. The toxicity correlates with the amount of elemental iron within iron products ingested. Ingestion/administration of 20 mg/kg or more of elemental iron can result in symptoms of toxicity. Serum levels peak between 4 and 6 hours and can be used to assess the potential for toxicity. If a patient is symptomatic and hemodynamically unstable, they should be treated with IV fluids and potentially with deferoxamine – a chelating agent that can bind to iron and be excreted renally, removing it from the body. Vitamin K or fresh frozen plasma are therapy options in cases of iron-induced coagulopathy. A toxicologist should be consulted for guidance when iron toxicity is suspected.[11]

Enhancing Healthcare Team Outcomes

Interprofessional healthcare teams are often made up of many members from different disciplines and can include, but are not limited to, a physician (MD, DO), nurse practitioner or physician assistant, pharmacist, and nurse.

The clinician (MD, DO, NP, PA) will evaluate and decide whether supplemental iron is needed. The pharmacist can consult with various dose formulations available and recommended doses and perform medication reconciliation. Nursing can counsel on proper administration (e.g., avoid taking calcium-rich foods within 2 hours of supplemental iron, etc.) and verify patient compliance. A dietitian or nutritionist can also educate the patient regarding improving their diet and iron-rich foods. All these providers on the interprofessional healthcare team must report back to the treating clinician should they encounter any concerns.

All such team members treating iron-deficient patients must be able to recognize indications for the administration of iron and be familiar with contraindications, adverse effects, monitoring, and toxicity, and practice interprofessional communication to ensure all healthcare team members are in synch. Increasing the knowledge of iron therapy for each team member will improve implementation and, by extension, improve patient outcomes. [Level 5]

Review Questions


Muñoz M, Gómez-Ramírez S, Besser M, Pavía J, Gomollón F, Liumbruno GM, Bhandari S, Cladellas M, Shander A, Auerbach M. Current misconceptions in diagnosis and management of iron deficiency. Blood Transfus. 2017 Sep;15(5):422-437. [PMC free article: PMC5589705] [PubMed: 28880842]
Girelli D, Ugolini S, Busti F, Marchi G, Castagna A. Modern iron replacement therapy: clinical and pathophysiological insights. Int J Hematol. 2018 Jan;107(1):16-30. [PubMed: 29196967]
Danielson BG. Structure, chemistry, and pharmacokinetics of intravenous iron agents. J Am Soc Nephrol. 2004 Dec;15 Suppl 2:S93-8. [PubMed: 15585603]
Fuqua BK, Vulpe CD, Anderson GJ. Intestinal iron absorption. J Trace Elem Med Biol. 2012 Jun;26(2-3):115-9. [PubMed: 22575541]
Geisser P, Burckhardt S. The pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics of iron preparations. Pharmaceutics. 2011 Jan 04;3(1):12-33. [PMC free article: PMC3857035] [PubMed: 24310424]
Crielaard BJ, Lammers T, Rivella S. Targeting iron metabolism in drug discovery and delivery. Nat Rev Drug Discov. 2017 Jun;16(6):400-423. [PMC free article: PMC5455971] [PubMed: 28154410]
Tolkien Z, Stecher L, Mander AP, Pereira DI, Powell JJ. Ferrous sulfate supplementation causes significant gastrointestinal side-effects in adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis. PLoS One. 2015;10(2):e0117383. [PMC free article: PMC4336293] [PubMed: 25700159]
Auerbach M, Macdougall IC. Safety of intravenous iron formulations: facts and folklore. Blood Transfus. 2014 Jul;12(3):296-300. [PMC free article: PMC4111808] [PubMed: 25074787]
Rampton D, Folkersen J, Fishbane S, Hedenus M, Howaldt S, Locatelli F, Patni S, Szebeni J, Weiss G. Hypersensitivity reactions to intravenous iron: guidance for risk minimization and management. Haematologica. 2014 Nov;99(11):1671-6. [PMC free article: PMC4222472] [PubMed: 25420283]
Jimenez K, Kulnigg-Dabsch S, Gasche C. Management of Iron Deficiency Anemia. Gastroenterol Hepatol (N Y). 2015 Apr;11(4):241-50. [PMC free article: PMC4836595] [PubMed: 27099596]
Yuen HW, Becker W. StatPearls [Internet]. StatPearls Publishing; Treasure Island (FL): Jun 26, 2023. Iron Toxicity. [PubMed: 29083637]

Disclosure: Jonathan Barney declares no relevant financial relationships with ineligible companies.

Disclosure: Leila Moosavi declares no relevant financial relationships with ineligible companies.

Copyright © 2024, StatPearls Publishing LLC.

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Bookshelf ID: NBK542171PMID: 31194328


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