The use of dietary supplements is the reason for more than 20,000 trips to the emergency room each year, according to a large study. Many of the injuries caused by these products involve young adults with cardiovascular problems who took supplements that are advertised and sold weight loss and as energy boosters.
This study is the first to document the number of severe injuries and hospitalizations that have been linked to dietary supplements. There have been calls for tougher regulations on dietary supplements, a category that includes herbal products. The supplement industry takes in $32 billion a year.
The new study was published in The New England Journal of Medicine and led by researchers at the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Researchers analyzed visits emergency room where a dietary supplement was implicated at a large network of American hospitals over 10 years.
The products involved included including herbal pills, amino acids, vitamins, and minerals. The injuries included severe allergic reactions, heart trouble, and nausea and vomiting. Roughly 10% of the ER visits were serious enough to require hospitalization, the study found.
To give some perspective, prescription drugs are responsible for 30 times as many trips to the emergency room each year.
One of the study's findings was that emergency room visits caused by supplements occurred predominantly among young people, whereas those for prescription products occurred primarily to older adults.
About a third of emergency room visits due to dietary supplements for people 65 and older were caused by choking on pills like calcium or other vitamins and minerals.
More than a quarter of the emergency room visits were to people aged 20 to 34, and half of these cases were caused by a supplement that was marketed for weight loss or as an energy booster. These products commonly caused symptoms such as chest pain, heart palpitations, and irregular heart rhythms.
Under a 1994 federal law, all products marketed as dietary supplements are considered to be safe until proved otherwise. They do not have to be approved by the FDA before they are sold to consumers, nor are they required to list major side effects.