Serum or plasma ferritin concentration as an index of iron deficiency and overload

Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2021 May 24;5(5):CD011817. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD011817.pub2.


Background: Reference standard indices of iron deficiency and iron overload are generally invasive, expensive, and can be unpleasant or occasionally risky. Ferritin is an iron storage protein and its concentration in the plasma or serum reflects iron stores; low ferritin indicates iron deficiency, while elevated ferritin reflects risk of iron overload. However, ferritin is also an acute-phase protein and its levels are elevated in inflammation and infection. The use of ferritin as a diagnostic test of iron deficiency and overload is a common clinical practice.

Objectives: To determine the diagnostic accuracy of ferritin concentrations (serum or plasma) for detecting iron deficiency and risk of iron overload in primary and secondary iron-loading syndromes.

Search methods: We searched the following databases (10 June 2020): DARE (Cochrane Library) Issue 2 of 4 2015, HTA (Cochrane Library) Issue 4 of 4 2016, CENTRAL (Cochrane Library) Issue 6 of 12 2020, MEDLINE (OVID) 1946 to 9 June 2020, Embase (OVID) 1947 to week 23 2020, CINAHL (Ebsco) 1982 to June 2020, Web of Science (ISI) SCI, SSCI, CPCI-exp & CPCI-SSH to June 2020, POPLINE 16/8/18, Open Grey (10/6/20), TRoPHI (10/6/20), Bibliomap (10/6/20), IBECS (10/6/20), SCIELO (10/6/20), Global Index Medicus (10/6/20) AIM, IMSEAR, WPRIM, IMEMR, LILACS (10/6/20), PAHO (10/6/20), WHOLIS 10/6/20, IndMED (16/8/18) and Native Health Research Database (10/6/20). We also searched two trials registers and contacted relevant organisations for unpublished studies.

Selection criteria: We included all study designs seeking to evaluate serum or plasma ferritin concentrations measured by any current or previously available quantitative assay as an index of iron status in individuals of any age, sex, clinical and physiological status from any country.

Data collection and analysis: We followed standard Cochrane methods. We designed the data extraction form to record results for ferritin concentration as the index test, and bone marrow iron content for iron deficiency and liver iron content for iron overload as the reference standards. Two other authors further extracted and validated the number of true positive, true negative, false positive, false negative cases, and extracted or derived the sensitivity, specificity, positive and negative predictive values for each threshold presented for iron deficiency and iron overload in included studies. We assessed risk of bias and applicability using the Quality Assessment of Diagnostic Accuracy Studies (QUADAS)-2 tool. We used GRADE assessment to enable the quality of evidence and hence strength of evidence for our conclusions.

Main results: Our search was conducted initially in 2014 and updated in 2017, 2018 and 2020 (10 June). We identified 21,217 records and screened 14,244 records after duplicates were removed. We assessed 316 records in full text. We excluded 190 studies (193 records) with reasons and included 108 studies (111 records) in the qualitative and quantitative analysis. There were 11 studies (12 records) that we screened from the last search update and appeared eligible for a future analysis. We decided to enter these as awaiting classification. We stratified the analysis first by participant clinical status: apparently healthy and non-healthy populations. We then stratified by age and pregnancy status as: infants and children, adolescents, pregnant women, and adults. Iron deficiency We included 72 studies (75 records) involving 6059 participants. Apparently healthy populations Five studies screened for iron deficiency in people without apparent illness. In the general adult population, three studies reported sensitivities of 63% to 100% at the optimum cutoff for ferritin, with corresponding specificities of 92% to 98%, but the ferritin cutoffs varied between studies. One study in healthy children reported a sensitivity of 74% and a specificity of 77%. One study in pregnant women reported a sensitivity of 88% and a specificity of 100%. Overall confidence in these estimates was very low because of potential bias, indirectness, and sparse and heterogenous evidence. No studies screened for iron overload in apparently healthy people. People presenting for medical care There were 63 studies among adults presenting for medical care (5042 participants). For a sample of 1000 subjects with a 35% prevalence of iron deficiency (of the included studies in this category) and supposing a 85% specificity, there would be 315 iron-deficient subjects correctly classified as having iron deficiency and 35 iron-deficient subjects incorrectly classified as not having iron deficiency, leading to a 90% sensitivity. Thresholds proposed by the authors of the included studies ranged between 12 to 200 µg/L. The estimated diagnostic odds ratio was 50. Among non-healthy adults using a fixed threshold of 30 μg/L (nine studies, 512 participants, low-certainty evidence), the pooled estimate for sensitivity was 79% with a 95% confidence interval of (58%, 91%) and specificity of 98%, with a 95% confidence interval of (91%, 100%). The estimated diagnostic odds ratio was 140, a relatively highly informative test. Iron overload We included 36 studies (36 records) involving 1927 participants. All studies concerned non-healthy populations. There were no studies targeting either infants, children, or pregnant women. Among all populations (one threshold for males and females; 36 studies, 1927 participants, very low-certainty evidence): for a sample of 1000 subjects with a 42% prevalence of iron overload (of the included studies in this category) and supposing a 65% specificity, there would be 332 iron-overloaded subjects correctly classified as having iron overload and 85 iron-overloaded subjects incorrectly classified as not having iron overload, leading to a 80% sensitivity. The estimated diagnostic odds ratio was 8.

Authors' conclusions: At a threshold of 30 micrograms/L, there is low-certainty evidence that blood ferritin concentration is reasonably sensitive and a very specific test for iron deficiency in people presenting for medical care. There is very low certainty that high concentrations of ferritin provide a sensitive test for iron overload in people where this condition is suspected. There is insufficient evidence to know whether ferritin concentration performs similarly when screening asymptomatic people for iron deficiency or overload.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Anemia, Iron-Deficiency / blood*
  • Anemia, Iron-Deficiency / diagnosis
  • Bias
  • Biomarkers / blood
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Female
  • Ferritins / blood*
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Iron Overload / blood*
  • Iron Overload / diagnosis
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnant Women
  • Sensitivity and Specificity
  • Young Adult


  • Biomarkers
  • Ferritins