Iron supplements are dietary supplements containing iron that can be prescribed by a doctor for a medical reason, or purchased from a vitamin shop, drug store etc. They are primarily used to treat anemia or other iron deficiencies. There are three ways that an an be delivered: orally, intravenously or intramuscularly.
The first iron pills were commonly known as Blaud's pills, which were named after P. Blaud of Beaucaire, the French physician who introduced and started the use of these medications as a treatment for patients with anemia.
Iron supplements are used in medicine to treat iron deficiency and iron-deficiency anemia; parenteral irons can also be used to treat functional iron deficiency, where requirements for iron are greater than the body's ability to supply iron such as in inflammatory states. The main criteria is that other causes of anemia have been ruled out, such as vitamin B12/folate deficiency, drug induced or due to other poisons such as lead. Iron deficiency anemia is microcytic, hypochromic anemia. Generally, oral preparations are trialled before using parenteral delivery.
There are three main causes of iron deficiency anemia:
- dietary: too little present or difficult to absorb
- increased requirements: (body failing to utilize iron stores adequately, if diabetes is ruled out)
- increased losses: for many women its causes include chronic blood loss from the GI tract as well as heavy menstruation as well as acute loss from trauma).
Often the presentation is a mixed picture with several concurrent factors, such as cases of irritable bowel diseases with chronic loss, reduced oral absorption due to inflammation leading due to increased hepcidin levels and reduced amount in diet due to poor appetite. Preventive measures must be discussed with the patient (for example when the patient is on a strict vegetarian diet because inorganic iron in plants has a lower bioavailability, or elderly patients with a poor diet).
Iron can be supplemented by the oral route using various pharmacological forms, such as iron(II) sulfate (this is the most common and cheapest salt, e.g. Feratab, Fer-Iron, Slow-FE,…) and in complex with gluconate, dextran, carbonyl iron, and other salts. Sometimes ascorbic acid is added for better absorption.
Heme iron polypeptide (HIP) (e.g. Proferrin ES and Proferrin Forte) can be used when regular iron supplements such as ferrous sulfate or ferrous fumarate are not tolerated or absorbed. A clinical study demonstrated that HIP increased serum iron levels 23 times greater than ferrous fumarate on a milligram-per-milligram basis.
Another alternative is ferrous glycine sulfate or ferroglycine sulfate, has less gastrointestinal side-effects than standard preparations such as iron fumarate. It is unusual among oral preparations of iron supplements in that the iron in this preparation has very high oral bio-availability esp in the liquid version (e.g. Hemfer by Alkem). This option should be evaluated before resorting to parenteral therapy. It is especially useful in iron deficiency anemia associated with autoimmune gastritis and Helicobacter pylori gastritis, where it generally has satisfactory effect.
Since iron stores in the body are generally depleted, and there is a limit to what the body can process (about 2–6 mg/kg of body mass per day; i.e. for a 100 kg/220 lb man this is equal to a maximum dose of 200–600 mg/per day) without iron poisoning, this is a chronic therapy which may take 3–6 months.
Parenteral iron therapy (intravenously or intramuscular) is given when oral therapy has failed (not tolerated by the patient), oral absorption is seriously compromised (by illnesses, or when the patient cannot swallow), benefit from oral therapy cannot be expected or fast improvement is required (for example, prior to elective surgery). Parenteral therapy is more expensive than oral iron preparations and most preparations are not suitable during the first trimester of pregnancy, although Ferinject can be used.
There are cases where parenteral iron is preferable over oral iron. These are cases where oral iron is not tolerated, where the haemoglobin needs to be increased quickly (e.g. post partum, post operatively, post transfusion), where there is an underlying inflammatory condition (e.g. inflammatory bowel disease) or renal patients, the benefits of parenteral iron far outweigh the risks. In many cases, use of intravenous iron has lower risks of adverse events than a blood transfusion and as long as the patient is stable is a better alternative. Ultimately this always remains a clinical decision based on local guidelines, although National Guidelines are increasingly stipulating IV iron in certain groups of patients.
Soluble Iron salts have a significant risk of adverse effects and can cause toxicity due to damage to cellular macromolecules. Delivering iron parenterally has utilised various different molecules to limit this. This has included dextrans, sucrose and carboxymaltose.
One formulation of parenteral iron is iron dextran (trade names including Cosmofer, DexFerrum, Infed). A notable side effect is allergic reaction, which occurs in less than 1 on 100 treated patients, but may cause severe, sometimes fatal, complications, including loss of consciousness, collapse, difficulty breathing, hives, swelling, convulsions and severe low blood pressure (hypotension).
Iron sucrose (trade names including Venofer) has an occurrence of allergic reactions of less than 1 in 1000. A common side effect is taste changes, especially a metallic taste, occurring in between 1 in 10 and 1 in 100 treated patients. It has a maximum dose of 200 mg on each occasion according to the SPC, but it has been given in doses of 500 mg. Doses can be given up to 3 times a week.
Iron carboxymaltose (trade name Ferinject) is a newer formulation of parenteral iron which is dextran free with the shell being fully metabolised in the body to simple sugars. The most common side effect are headaches which occur in 3.3%. It can be given over 15 minutes in doses up to 1,000 mg and has been adopted in many hospitals due to the increased number of patients that can be treated as no test dose is required and the patient does not need to be monitored after a dose has been administered.
Side effects 
Side effects of therapy with oral iron are most often diarrhea or constipation and epigastric abdominal discomfort. Taken after a meal, side effects decrease, but there is an increased risk of interaction with other substances. Side effects are dose-dependent, and the dose may be adjusted.
The patient may notice that his/her stools become black. This is completely harmless, but patients must be warned about this to avoid unnecessary concern. When iron supplements are given in a liquid form, teeth may reversibly discolor (this can be avoided through the use of a straw). Intramuscular injection can be painful, and brown discoloration may be noticed.
Contraindications often depend on the substance in question. Documented hypersensitivity to any ingredients and anemias without proper work-up (i.e., documentation of iron deficiency) is true of all preparations. Some can be used in iron deficiency, others require iron deficiency anaemia to be present. Some are also contraindicated in rheumatoid arthritis
Iron supplementation and infection risk 
Because one of the functions of elevated ferritin (an acute phase reaction protein) in acute infections is thought to be to sequester iron from bacteria, it is generally thought that iron supplementation (which circumvents this mechanism) should be avoided in patients who have active bacterial infections. Replacement of iron stores is seldom such an emergency situation that it cannot wait for any such acute infection to be treated.
Some studies have found that iron supplementation can lead to an increase in infectious disease morbidity in areas where bacterial infections are common. For example, children receiving iron-enriched foods have demonstrated an increased rate in diarrhea overall and enteropathogen shedding. Iron deficiency protects against infection by creating an unfavorable environment for bacterial growth. Nevertheless, while iron deficiency might lessen infections by certain pathogenic diseases, it also leads to a reduction in resistance to other strains of viral or bacterial infections, such as Salmonella typhimurium or Entamoeba histolytica. Overall, it is sometimes difficult to decide whether iron supplementation will be beneficial or harmful to an individual in an environment that is prone to many infectious diseases; however this is a different question than the question of supplementation in individuals who are already ill with a bacterial infection.
Non-heme iron forms an insoluble complex with several other drugs, resulting in decreased absorption of both iron and the other drug. Examples include tetracycline, penicillamine, methyldopa, levodopa, bisphosphonates and quinolones. The same can occur with elements in food, such as calcium. Absorption of iron is better at a low pH (an acid environment), and resorption is decreased if there is a simultaneous intake of antacids.
Many factors decrease the rates of non-heme iron. Examples are tannins from foods, such as tea and saw palmetto, phytic acid and roughage. Vegetarians and especially vegans are at increased risk of iron deficiency due to the combination of limited amounts of iron in the diet in a form that is poorly absorbed alongside compounds that further limit absorption.
Taken after a meal, there are fewer side effects but there is also less absorption because of interaction and pH alteration. Generally, an interval of 2–3 hours between the iron intake and that of other drugs seems advisable, but is less convenient for patients and can impact on compliance.
Iron overdose has been one of the leading causes of death caused by toxicological agents in children younger than 6 years Children who ingest tablets may become intoxicated, in which case they should be taken to an emergency department. Some formulations (like carbonyl-iron) may be safer.
Acute overdose can be fatal to both children and adults and can occur by both the oral and parenteral route. Methods for preventing toxicity utilize gastric lavage and chelating agents (e.g. intravenous desferrioxamine) which help remove the toxicity of free elemental iron which can catalyse redox reactions, leading to the production of hydroxide radicals.
- Cellular toxicity
The absorption of excessive quantities of ingested iron results in systemic iron toxicity. Severe overdose causes impaired oxidative phosphorylation and mitochondrial dysfunction, which can result in cellular death. The liver is one of the organs most affected by iron toxicity, but other organs such as the heart, kidneys, lungs, and the hematologic systems also may be impaired. Individuals demonstrate signs of GI toxicity with ingestions of more than 20 mg/kg, but less than or equal to 40 mg/kg.
Iron poisoning may result in mortality or short-term and long-term morbidity.
Follow-up is needed to ensure compliance and to detect adequate response to therapy. The interval of follow up can widely depend on both the method of administration, and the underlying pathology. For parenteral irons it is recommended that there be a period of 4 weeks before repeating blood test to allow the body to utilise the iron. For oral iron, this can take considerably longer, so waiting 3 months may be appropriate.
See also 
- Blaud's pill – Medical Definition and More from. Merriam-Webster. Retrieved on 2012-12-21.
- Robinson, Victor, Ph.C., M.D. (editor) (1939). "P. Blaud of Beaucaire, Blaud's Pills for Anemia, Iron pills, Iron". The Modern Home Physician, A New Encyclopedia of Medical Knowledge. WM. H. Wise & Company (New York)., p. 435.
- [http://www.medicines.org.uk/EMC/medicine/24167/SPC/Ferinject+(ferric+carboxymaltose)/ Ferinject (ferric n 2012-12-21.
- Goddard AF, James MW , McIntyre AS and Scott BB (May 2005). Guidelines for the management of iron deficiency anaemia. British Society of Gastroenterology
- Seligman, et al., Nutritional Research 2000; Vol. 20, No 9:1279–1286.
- Aronstam, A.; Aston, D. (1982). "A comparative trial of a controlled-release iron tablet preparation ('Ferrocontin' Continus) and ferrous fumarate tablets". Pharmatherapeutica 3 (4): 263–267. PMID 7146040.
- Hershko, C.; Ianculovich, M.; Souroujon, M. (2007). "Decreased Treatment Failure Rates following Duodenal Release Ferrous Glycine Sulfate in Iron Deficiency Anemia Associated with Autoimmune Gastritis and Helicobacter pylori Gastritis". Acta Haematologica 118 (1): 19–26. doi:10.1159/000101701. PMID 17426393.
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- Ferinject (ferric carboxymaltose) – Summary of Product Characteristics (SPC) – (eMC). Medicines.org.uk. Retrieved on 2012-12-21.
- Moore, R Andrew; Gaskell, Helen; Rose, Peter; Allan, Jonathan (2011). "Meta-analysis of efficacy and safety of intravenous ferric carboxymaltose (Ferinject) from clinical trial reports and published trial data". BMC Blood Disorders 11: 4. doi:10.1186/1471-2326-11-4. PMC 3206450. PMID 21942989.
- Cosmofer in FASS (drug formulary), translated from Swedish "Allergiska reaktioner (förekommer hos færre än 1 av 100 behandlade patienter) "
- Drugs.com > iron dextran Version: 1.05. Revision Date: 12/15/2010
- Venofer in FASS (drug formulary), translated from Swedish "Allergiska reaktioner (inträffar hos färre än 1 av 1 000 patienter)" and "Vanliga (inträffar hos färre än 1 av 10 patienter): Tillfälliga smakförändringar (speciellt metallsmak)."
- Ferinject (ferric carboxymaltose) – Summary of Product Characteristics (SPC) – (eMC). Medicines.org.uk. Retrieved on 2012-12-21.
- Geisser P (2007). "Safety and efficacy of iron(III)-hydroxide polymaltose complex / a review of over 25 years experience". Arzneimittelforschung 57 (6A): 439–52. doi:10.1055/s-0031-1296693. PMID 17691594.
- Toblli JE, Brignoli R (2007). "Iron(III)-hydroxide polymaltose complex in iron deficiency anemia / review and meta-analysis". Arzneimittelforschung 57 (6A): 431–8. doi:10.1055/s-0031-1296692. PMID 17691593.
- Saha L, Pandhi P, Gopalan S, Malhotra S, Saha PK (2007). "Comparison of efficacy, tolerability, and cost of iron polymaltose complex with ferrous sulfate in the treatment of iron deficiency anemia in pregnant women". MedGenMed 9 (1): 1. PMC 1924983. PMID 17435611.
- Szarfarc SC, de Cassana LM, Fujimori E, Guerra-Shinohara EM, de Oliveira IM (2001). "Relative effectiveness of iron bis-glycinate chelate (Ferrochel) and ferrous sulfate in the control of iron deficiency in pregnant women". Arch Latinoam Nutr 51 (1 Suppl 1): 42–7. PMID 11688081.
- Ashmead SD (2001). "The chemistry of ferrous bis-glycinate chelate". Arch Latinoam Nutr 51 (1 Suppl 1): 7–12. PMID 11688084.
- CosmoFer – Summary of Product Characteristics (SPC) – (eMC). Medicines.org.uk. Retrieved on 2012-12-21.
- Boosting iron absorption: A guide to for the science-minded. Parentingscience.com. Retrieved on 2012-12-21.
- Iron Toxicity in Emergency Medicine. Emedicine.medscape.com. Retrieved on 2012-12-21.
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