August 9, 2011

Many Herbal Remedies Lack Safety Information

According to University of Leeds researchers, many herbal remedies available over-the-counter in pharmacies and health food shops lack important information needed for safe use.

A new EU law came into effect in April 2011 that regulates the sale of traditional herbal medicines like St. John's wort and Echinacea.

Products like this must now contain clear information on possible side effects, how they could interact with other prescribed medicines and whether people with existing illnesses should take them or not.

The researchers investigated the majority of over-the-counter herbal products and found that they did not contain any of the key information required for safe use.

"The best advice to consumers is 'buyer beware', as it always has been," Professor Raynor said in a press release. "Many people believe herbal medicines are somehow different to other medicines because they are 'natural'. However, any substance that affects the body "“ no matter where it came from "“ has the potential to do harm if it is not taken correctly."

The researchers bought 68 different preparations of five commonly used remedies at two well known health food stores, three large chain pharmacies, and three pharmacies at supermarkets during the investigation.  All of the products are known to have potentially harmful effects on some people.

The information provided with the products was compared to safety information, provided by the U.S. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine and was evaluated for completeness and accuracy regarding precautions, interactions with other drugs, and side effects.

The team found that 93 percent of products evaluated were unlicensed, and were not required to meet any standard of safety information provision.  Only 13 percent contained an information sheet and only three contained an acceptable amount of safety information.

"Consumers need reliable and comprehensive information when buying herbal medicines "“ information which tells them whether it is suitable for them," Professor Raynor said in a press release.

"I would advise anyone buying a herbal medicine to check that the box or packaging contains the 'THR' logo, which shows that the information it comes with has been approved.

"Herbal medicines should, ideally, be purchased where trained staff are available, so that consumers can have any questions answered. This information should be available from pharmacists. People should also always tell their doctor about herbal medicines they are taking, so they receive the best possible care."

The investigation was published in BioMed Central's open access journal BMC Medicine.


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