Problems caused by dietary supplements are sending tens of thousands of Americans to the emergency room each year, according to a study in The New England Journal of Medicine.
The symptoms for such visits are commonly chest pain, choking, or heart palpitations. All of these occur after the supplements are taken. In total, these problems account for about 23,000 annual emergency visits per year. Patients include children, young adults, and the elderly.
While only five percent of total ER visits involve pharmaceuticals, the issue is troubling because the market for herbal and complementary nutritional products remains largely unregulated, The Washington Post reports. Also, past surveys have shown that almost 50 percent of adults in the United States had used at least one dietary supplement in the past month.
As of 2012, there were more than 55,000 dietary supplements on the market.
The data was gathered by researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in collaboration with the Food and Drug Administration. For the study, the team followed ER admissions at 63 U.S. hospitals from 2004 to 2013. Of the 23,000 annual ER visits caused by dietary supplements, 2,000 resulted in hospitalizations.
“What’s most concerning is the age of people coming in with cardiovascular complications or symptoms,” Curtis Haas, director of pharmacy for the University of Rochester Medical Center and a past-president of the American College of Clinical Pharmacy, told Reuters Health. “They are in their 20s to 30s, which shows there are risks to these products.”
For the past few years, health officials in the United States have increased efforts to warn consumers about the dangers of using the products.
Last year, two people–18-year-old Logan Stiner and 24-year-old James Wade Sweatt of Georgia–both died due to complications from ingesting powdered caffeine. Just this Tuesday, former Los Angeles Lakers star Lamar Odom collapsed when experimenting with “herbal Viagra” pills that contained “hidden substances”.
More than a quarter of the ER visits in the study were by young adults between the age of 20 and 34. The next largest group were children who accidentally got into the supplements. Elderly individuals and older adults also were involved, but their visits were more related to choking that the supplements themselves. It is impossible to know exactly what the patients took, as physicians rarely wrote down brand names. In addition, companies frequently change their ingredients.
Though the results demonstrate the dangers of dietary supplements, the Council for Responsible Nutrition–a trade group for the dietary supplement industry–argues the study actually proves that supplements are safe.
Although 23,000 may seem like a large number, the organization argues that is far less than one tenth of one percent of dietary supplement users. They claim this proves there is a low risk of hospitalization. In addition, they say, companies have already been responding to issues such as choking by creating their product in gummy or liquid form.