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Open Access Research article

A rapid, simple questionnaire to assess gastrointestinal symptoms after oral ferrous sulphate supplementation

Dora IA Pereira1*, Susana S Couto Irving1, Miranda CE Lomer2 and Jonathan J Powell1

Author Affiliations

1 MRC Human Nutrition Research, Elsie Widdowson Laboratory, CB1 9NL Cambridge, UK

2 Diabetes and Nutritional Sciences Division, King’s College London, London, UK

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BMC Gastroenterology 2014, 14:103  doi:10.1186/1471-230X-14-103

Published: 4 June 2014



Oral iron supplementation is often associated with rapid onset of gastrointestinal side-effects. The aim of this study was to develop and trial a short, simple questionnaire to capture these early side-effects and to determine which symptoms are more discriminating.


The study was a double-blind placebo-controlled randomized parallel trial with one week treatment followed by one week wash-out. Subjects were randomized into two treatment groups (n = 10/group) to receive either ferrous sulphate (200 mg capsules containing 65 mg of iron) or placebo, both to be taken at mealtimes twice daily during the treatment period. Subjects completed the questionnaires daily for 14 days. The questionnaire included gastrointestinal symptoms commonly reported to be associated with the oral intake of ferrous iron salts (i.e. nausea, vomiting, heartburn, abdominal pain, diarrhoea, and constipation).


Seventy five per cent of participants reporting the presence of one or more symptoms in the first week of the study were in the ferrous sulphate group. In the second week of the study (i.e. wash-out), 67% of the participants reporting one or more symptom(s) were in the ferrous sulphate group. In the first week of the study (treatment) the number of symptoms reported by participants in the ferrous sulphate group (mean ± SEM = 6.7 ± 1.7) was significantly higher than that for participants in the placebo group (1.2 ± 0.5) (p = 0.01). In the second week of the study (wash-out) the number of symptoms reported by participants in the ferrous sulphate group (4.6 ± 2.0) appeared higher than for participants in the placebo group (1.0 ± 0.7) although this did not reach significance (p = 0.12). Events for which the gastrointestinal symptom questionnaire was most discriminatory between ferrous sulphate and placebo groups were: heartburn, abdominal pain and the presence of black stools (all p ≤ 0.03).


A tool for the detection of commonly-occurring side effects should not require large study numbers to be effective. With just 10 subjects per group (iron or placebo), this simple questionnaire measures gastrointestinal side-effects associated with oral iron (ferrous sulphate) supplementation, and would be appropriate for use in intervention studies or clinical trials.

Trial registration Identifier: NCT02146053 (21/05/2014).

Gastrointestinal symptoms; Ferrous sulphate; Iron supplementation; Side-effects; Adverse events; Oral iron