Dietary Supplements Responsible For 20,000 ER Visits Annually

By McCarton Ackerman 10/16/15

It’s not just illicit substances that send people to the hospital.

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A new study has found that dietary supplements lead to 20,000 emergency room visits across the country every year.

The findings, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, came from a team of health authorities at the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They analyzed ER visits from a large network of hospitals throughout the country over a 10-year period and then zeroed in on those which had any cases involving dietary supplements.

Out of the 20,000 cases, roughly 10% were severe enough to require hospitalization. Most of those admitted for reactions to the dietary supplements were younger men and women, with more than 25% of the cases being for patients between ages 20 and 34. The symptoms which led to being admitted included severe allergic reactions, heart trouble, nausea, and vomiting. A wide range of dietary supplements were found to be the culprit for these symptoms including herbal pills, amino acids, vitamins, and minerals.

“This is very disheartening,” said Dr. Pieter Cohen, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School who was not involved in the new research. “What we’re seeing from this study is that the system has failed. It’s failing to protect consumers from very serious harms.”

The study also found that cardiovascular problems were even more common with weight loss and energy supplements than prescription stimulants like amphetamine and Adderall. But because a 1994 federal law ruled that supplements are safe until proven otherwise, these products do not require a warning label unlike prescription stimulants.

Those in the supplement industry criticized the study for overblown statistics and argued that the findings actually show how relatively safe these products are.

“We have over 150 million Americans taking these products each year,” said Duffy Mackay, a spokesman for the Council for Responsible Nutrition, a supplement industry trade group. “This suggests that far less than one-tenth of 1% of supplement users will visit the emergency room.”

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.