Flu-fighting supplements attract nearly half of us

Consumer Reports News: November 24, 2010 12:58 PM

When I began working at Consumer Reports more than 10 years ago, I was taking quite a few dietary supplements every day. As I looked more closely at the evidence for various remedies and listened to the reasoning behind our medical consultants’ recommendations, I began to prune the list. Now I take only a few and am happy to spend much less money on vitamins and herbs. 

Nearly half of Americans plan to use nutritional supplements or homeopathic remedies to protect themselves from the flu or fend off its symptoms, according to a nationally representative poll of 1,500 adults by the Consumer Reports National Research Center conducted in September.

Interestingly, supplement takers do not seem to be averse to conventional medical measures. Supplement users are as likely as nonsupplement users to have definite plans to get a flu shot. And the majority (62 percent) planned to use prescription or over-the-counter treatments, or both, to protect themselves against the flu.

Indeed, a try-everything approach seems to be common among supplement takers. On average, they said they would take four different kinds of supplements to fight the flu. However, the supplements that appear to have  the best (though  preliminary) evidence for efficacy in fighting off the flu—including elderberry and n-acetyl cysteine—are not top of mind among supplement takers. Other supplements used as anti-flu treatments, such as vitamin C and zinc, have been found to be possibly effective against the common cold, but not against the flu.

Cost isn’t the only downside to a “might as well take them all” approach to supplements. They can have side effects and may interact with prescription and over-the-counter medications.

For avoiding the flu, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all people 6 months of age and older get this year’s vaccine. The flu vaccine has proved to be safe over many decades, according to our medical advisers (and, yes, I rolled up my sleeve this month to get mine). 

Ronni Sandroff, Health and Family editorial director

Learn more about our recent flu poll, our treatment Ratings for flu (available to subscribers), and more on natural medicines, from A to Z.

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