Supplements Responsible for 23,000 ER Visits Per Year
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Supplements Responsible for 23,000 ER Visits Per Year

Think “all natural” means “perfectly safe”? Unfortunately that’s not the case, at least when it comes to vitamins and supplements. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that about 23,000 Americans per year take a trip to the emergency room due to problems related to supplements. About 10 percent of those cases even require a hospital stay.

“There’s a lot of misinformation” surrounding supplements, says Keith Roach, MD, Sharecare’s chief medical officer. “A lot of people think if it’s natural it can’t hurt you, and that’s just not true,” he says.

Who’s at risk?
Young adults between the ages of 20 and 34 were most likely to end up in the ER due to supplements. Women ended up in the hospital more often than men. Children under 4 are also at risk, mostly due to getting ahold of bottles and swallowing pills when their parents aren’t looking.

Weight-loss and energy-booster supplements were the biggest offenders, responsible for about one-third of emergency room visits. “Weight-loss and energy supplements have the potential to be scary,” says Dr. Roach. They’re full of caffeine and chemicals and are responsible for nearly three-quarters of emergency room visits where people complain of heart-related symptoms. “With too much (of these supplements), you’re going to start getting these kinds of toxicities. I don’t know whether they took too much or took a normal dose for most people, but it wasn’t a good dose for them,” says Roach.

Roach says that consumers “need to think of supplements as drugs. If you’re starting to have symptoms that look like the side effects of drugs, it could be the supplements. If it’s severe, go to the emergency room and if it’s not, stop taking them and call your doctor.”

Buyer beware
What’s even more problematic for consumers is that you rarely know what you’re getting. Supplements aren’t regulated by the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) like over-the-counter and prescription drugs, so there’s very little oversight. “Because supplements are not regulated, most don’t have quality control, and you don’t know what you’re getting,” says Roach, though he notes that that’s changing as more brands are having their supplements independently tested and verified.

It’s important to note that while 23,000 ER visits per year sounds like a lot—and it is—that number pales in comparison to the number of people taking supplements. According to one estimate, half of all adults have used at least one supplement in the past month. “You’ll find that not a lot of people end up in the ER, relative to how many are taking supplements,” says Roach.

The bottom line, he says, is that most healthy people with a good diet don’t need to take supplements. “There is arguably no supplement that can make a healthy person healthier,” says Roach. Some supplements might help people with certain medical conditions who can’t or won’t take over-the-counter or prescription drugs. But, in Roach’s opinion, “There is little to no value in taking supplements for a healthy person with a healthy diet. For most people, you’re wasting your money.”

Dietary Supplements

Whether you're visiting the drug store, grocery or natural food shop you'll likely find an aisle where there are jars and bottles of things for you to put in your body that are neither foods nor medicines. Ranging from vitamins an...

d minerals to fiber and herbal remedies, these supplements are not regulated in the same way as either food or medicine. Some of them are backed by solid research, others are folk remedies or proprietary cures. If your diet does not include enough of certain vitamins or minerals, a supplement may be a good idea. Natural treatment for conditions like constipation may be effective. But because these substances are unregulated, it is always a good idea to educate yourself about the products and to use common sense when taking them. This is even more true if you are pregnant or taking a medicine that may be affected by supplements.
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