We undertook a review of studies comparing complications of centrally or peripherally inserted central venous catheters. Twelve studies were included. Catheter tip malpositioning (9.3% vs 3.4%, p = 0.0007), thrombophlebitis (78 vs 7.5 per 10 000 indwelling days, p = 0.0001) and catheter dysfunction (78 vs 14 per 10 000 indwelling days, p = 0.04) were more common with peripherally inserted catheters than with central catheter placement, respectively. There was no difference in infection rates. We found that the risks of tip malpositioning, thrombophlebitis and catheter dysfunction favour clinical use of centrally placed catheters instead of peripherally inserted central catheters, and that the two catheter types do not differ with respect to catheter-related infection rates.