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Press Release

Consumers Underestimate Potential Dangers of Alternative Medicines

Patients using alternative medications, such as herbal remedies and dietary supplements, often underestimate the potential for serious side effects and drug interactions, according to a recent survey by the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists (ASHP).

The poll of 1,000 consumers and 300 health-system pharmacists was designed to assess perceptions about the safety of alternative medicines. The survey revealed that 42% of respondents do not believe that alternative medicines can cause serious side effects. This finding concerns pharmacists because the use of some alternative medicines has been linked to dangerous drug interactions and side effects, including high blood pressure and kidney and liver damage. 

The increased use of alternative medicines in the United States to treat and prevent a variety of medical conditions is well documented, but many gray areas exist in consumers' minds about what constitutes "safe" when it comes to alternative medicines. Nearly all of the pharmacists surveyed who have discussed alternative medicines with patients say that patients have misconceptions about these products. 

"While our survey shows that the majority of consumers understand the importance of discussing alternative medicines with their pharmacist or physician, it also shows that a fundamental confusion exists about the definition of 'alternative medicine,' " said ASHP President Bruce Canaday, Pharm.D., FASHP. "There also seems to be a general assumption that 'natural' means 'safe.' This is just simply not the case in all instances." 

The survey revealed that consumers were more likely to consider a substance safe when the words "natural" or "plants" were used. For example, when asked about alternative medicines, the majority of respondents said they believed that potential side effects and drug interactions could be "serious"or "very serious." However, the majority of respondents agreed with the statement that side effects were relatively minor since most alternative medicines are made from "natural" ingredients. Seventy percent of consumers surveyed felt that alternative medicines are safe to use since they are made from plants, herbs, and other natural products. 

ASHP wants consumers to know that alternative medicines, which can include products like dietary supplements, herbal remedies, and vitamins, can sometimes cause very serious side effects and drug interactions. 

  • Ephedra, an herbal remedy that has been used as a decongestant, energy booster, and weight loss aid, can intensify symptoms of heart disease and seizure disorders, in some cases causing heart attacks. 
  • Comfrey (used as a digestive aid), germander (used as a weight loss aid), and chaparrel (used as an antioxidant and anticancer treatment), have all been shown to cause liver damage and should be avoided completely. 
  • St. John's Wort, a popular herbal treatment for depression, can cause tremors, nervousness, and insomnia when taken in conjunction with prescription antidepressants.

ASHP recommends that consumers discuss all alternative medicines they are taking with their physician or pharmacist. This is especially important for patients entering a hospital or health system or for those who are taking any prescription or over-the-counter medications. 

"With the increasing use of alternative medicines, it is more important than ever that consumers and health professionals work together to ensure the safe use of these products," said Canaday. 

ASHP is the 30,000-member national professional association that represents pharmacists who practice in hospitals, health maintenance organizations, long-term care facilities, home care, and other components of health care systems. ASHP believes that the mission of pharmacists is to help people make the best use of medications. Pharmacists have a minimum of five years of pharmacy education, making them the health care team's medication-use experts. Many health-system pharmacists have a doctoral degree in pharmacy (Pharm.D.) and may also participate in post-graduate residency programs and train in specialized areas such as kidney dialysis, asthma management, and long-term care. 

Click here to see the research summary.