BACKGROUND: Concerns regarding the safety of transfused blood, have prompted reconsideration of the use of allogeneic (blood from an unrelated donor) red blood cell (RBC) transfusion, and a range of techniques to minimise transfusion requirements. OBJECTIVES: To examine the evidence for the efficacy of cell salvage in reducing allogeneic blood transfusion and the evidence for any effect on clinical outcomes. SEARCH STRATEGY: We searched the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials, MEDLINE, EMBASE, Current Contents and the websites of international health technology assessment agencies. The reference lists in identified trials and review articles were also searched, and study authors were contacted to identify additional studies. The searches were updated in January 2004. SELECTION CRITERIA: Controlled parallel group trials in which adult patients, scheduled for non-urgent surgery, were randomised to cell salvage, or to a control group, who did not receive the intervention. DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSIS: Two authors independently screened search results, extracted data and assessed methodological quality. The main outcomes measures were the number of patients exposed to allogeneic red cell transfusion, and the amount of blood transfused. Other outcomes measured were re-operation for bleeding, blood loss, post-operative complications (thrombosis, infection, non-fatal myocardial infarction, renal failure), mortality, and length of hospital stay (LOS). MAIN RESULTS: Overall, the use of cell salvage reduced the rate of exposure to allogeneic RBC transfusion by a relative 39% (relative risk [RR] = 0.61: 95% confidence interval [CI] 0.52 to 0.71). The absolute reduction in risk (ARR) of receiving an allogeneic RBC transfusion was 23% (95% CI 16% to 30%). In orthopaedic procedures the RR of exposure to RBC transfusion was 0.42 (95% CI 0.32 to 0.54) compared to 0.77 (95% CI 0.68 to 0.87) for cardiac procedures. The use of cell salvage resulted in an average saving of 0.67 units of allogeneic RBC per patient (weighted mean difference was -0.64; 95% CI -0.89 to -0.45). Cell salvage did not appear to impact adversely on clinical outcomes. AUTHORS' CONCLUSIONS: The results suggest cell salvage is efficacious in reducing the need for allogeneic red cell transfusion in adult elective surgery. However, the methodological quality of trials was poor. As the trials were unblinded and lacked adequate concealment of treatment allocation, transfusion practices may have been influenced by knowledge of the patients' treatment status biasing the results in favour of cell salvage.