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Report: Supplements Sending Thousands to ER Each Year

supplement labelA new report has found that the American love affair with unregulated supplements isn’t working out so well for an estimated 23,000 people who visit emergency rooms annually due to complications from these products.

CBS News is reporting on a new report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) who coauthored the study. Researchers found that of the 23,000 Americans who rush to the hospital for treatment every year, more than 2,000 require hospitalizations. 

"People may not realize dietary supplements can cause adverse effects but each year thousands of people are treated in emergency departments because of adverse events related to these supplements," Dr. Andrew Geller, lead author of the study and medical officer in CDC's Division of Healthcare Quality Promotion, told CBS News.

For the most part, it was young adults between the ages of 20 and 34 who were most commonly seen in ER’s due to taking weight loss and/or energy products. Their most common symptoms were chest pain, palpitations and elevated heart rate.

There were also many cases of unsupervised children ingesting supplements who needed immediate medical attention.

"More than 20 percent of emergency room visits were young children getting into supplements meant for somebody else," Geller said.

Even though supplements cannot be marketed for the treatment or prevention of any disease in the U.S. because they are not subjected to the same scrutiny as prescription drugs, many people take them to address a wide range of symptoms or to boost their overall health.

This is not the first negative report on supplements to make headlines this year. Last winter, consumers were shocked to hear that that New York State attorney general’s office accused four major retailers - GNC, Target, Walgreens and Walmart - of selling fraudulent and potentially dangerous herbal supplements and ordering them to remove these products from their shelves. This action was taken after independent testing found that four out of five of the products did not contain any of the herbs listed on their labels.

Instead, some of the pills were found to contain nothing more than cheap fillers such as powdered rice and houseplants, but also some potentially dangerous ingredients for those with allergies such as peanut, soy and wheat products.

The only good news to come out of the study is that consumers were made more aware of the fact that because supplements are not regulated (due to political maneuvering by pro-supplement-industry lawmakers) there is no guarantee that what’s on the label is actually in the product. In other words, consumers are buying and imbibing these products at their own risk.

For this reason, Dr. Andrew Greenberg, director of the Obesity and Metabolism Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston, told CBS News, "If your doctor tells you to take two pills, you take two pills, but if you go to a nutrition store you may think if two pills is good, then six must be great. In the supplement world, more is not necessarily good."

Greenberg said, "Show your doctor what you want to take and discuss it with them because it's very hard for a lay person to understand what the ingredients are within a supplement."

Geller offers this advice for people who take supplements:

• Young adults taking products to lose weight or increase energy should keep in mind that some of these products can have effects on their heart, and shouldn't be taken in excess or without consulting with their doctors.

• If you have a heart condition, talk to your doctor before you start taking a weight loss or energy supplement.

• Older adults should be mindful of choking and swallowing problems when it comes to supplements. Avoid taking more than one pill at a time, avoid extra large capsules, and swallow products with plenty of fluids. Pills or pill fragments can get lodged in the windpipe or esophagus and can lead to complications.

• If you're having pill-swallowing problems, talk with your pharmacist or doctor about other options, or if the supplements can be cut in half.

• All medicines and dietary supplements should be stored up, away, and out of sight from young children.

• Tell your doctor if you're taking any supplements and which ones.